Tales from the Trenches: “Look at Me!”

Apr 29, 2013 10 Comments

(This is the first in the Tales from the Trenches series, a new semi-regular blog feature sharing specific insights & observations from site visits to retailers around North America)

In this first installment of Tales from the Trenches, I’m pleased to report that Spring is finally here! (or almost over, depending where you are in the country.) A time of excitement and promise, and in the retail garden business, a time for new employees hoping that no one asks them a question. You will see this in all retail channels, from the oldest exclusive nursery to the newest “pop-up” facility. I was that person myself once, long ago and far away: pushing a cart of plants to re-stock a bench or washing celery on a farmer’s market stall. I kept my head down, worked hard and tried to look invisible, silently willing customers to keep moving past me. Now that I am a little bit (!) older I can understand what they are going through, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable in today’s highly competitive lawn and garden market.

The Tale

During one garden center observation session, I watched a younger employee ringing up customers for at least three hours without a noticeable smile, without an audible “thank you”  – in fact, without an impromptu action of any sort. Robotic, almost: it might as well have been a self-checkout station for all the interaction there was. After watching a $170 sale with zero human reaction from the employee I wanted to say, “That lady just bought about 17 hours of your wages, it’s OK to smile…”

The Question 

Why are these people so unprepared for what awaits them?  Who interviewed, selected, hired, oriented, trained and placed them in such an unforgiving environment? All retail work can be demanding, but the spring season in lawn and garden must rank up there with the best of them. We have a short 8 weeks to make enough money to pay a year’s bills, selling to a consumer that might not have set foot in the place since last June. Customers now have less time and less tolerance for failure than ever before.

Retail staff are supposed to magically make all this right in 20 minutes and smile all the way through? Yep, garden retail can be intense and unforgiving.

But as they say, that’s not the customer’s problem. They are volunteering to come to our stores and spend their valuable spare time, gas and wages to pay our wages. Hmmm, now you put it that way….

The Answer 

It’s the fear. I am convinced that the main reason for this lack of confidence to look up, engage customers and see where the conversation leads, is the employee’s fear. Fear of being asked a question he cannot answer. Obviously, it is the job of management to train these employees, to orient them with answers to as many of the common, predictable questions as possible. It is our job to infuse confidence in them through product knowledge (“PK”).

But orientation and training must go way beyond that. New people will never know enough to face every inquiry, so they will still avoid eye contact. It is essential that managers equip their employees with a way to cope with any question – whether they know the answer or not. Just a few minutes on how to handle this potentially awkward situation might be the most productive training session of the year. Only then can managers expect employees to have the confidence to look up and engage customers.

The Fix 

Employees need to be assured it is OK to not know every answer, but they can be the first responders and find someone who can provide the information. Customers would welcome an employee who has the confidence to say “That’s a great question and I wish I knew all this stuff but I am still learning myself! Let me get Jenny on the radio so she can get the answer for both of us!”

So the mantra to your staff in the next few weeks might be: “It’s OK to not know the answer, but it’s NOT OK to ignore or avoid customers because you don’t know.”

Yes, it’s Spring. So  heads up everyone, here come your wages!

Photo Credit: An Armstrongs Garden Center (CA) team member engaging a customer with a respectful but non-invasive stance 


  1. John Heaton
    Apr 29, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Good stuff. Your last thought will be on all pay checks this week. John

    1. Bob Sickles
      May 1, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      Ditto John,
      Everyone is scared in the garden center. Staff and customers. Just have to train them all! Technically staff needs to understand that they are on stage when they punch in, You can have fun being happy and smiling! If it is not for you go find a cubicule to hang out in and frown. You still will not be happy, but at least customers will not know it!

  2. Ian Baldwin
    May 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Agreed John and Bob, as owners you know this has to start at the top – yet another CEO role in small retail companies! Have a great weekend, thanks for joining in.

  3. Marsha
    May 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Very timely Ian! Much frustration from here on just this subject and your ideas are worth a try as are Johns “it will be on the next paycheck”

  4. Ron Vanderhoff
    May 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Managers and company leaders must set an example by modeling the RIGHT behavior too. Most of us don’t have all the answers, but if we are genuine, warm, engaging and empathetic our customers will love us and trust us. They will visit more and shop more. We’re practicing this “customer engagement” here right now, with Ian’s help.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 7, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      Ron, I appreciate your validating comment here! I watched employees (not at Roger’s!!) again this week who were so busy in their own world, so wrapped up in their task they completely overlooked the customer. This has to start at the top with owners and leaders easing off on the stress to get the task completed and validate (there’s that word again!) customer service ad the main priority. Or to put it more bluntly, “stick that wilting plant that cost you $4 under the bench and go talk to that lady looking at a $400 fountain!” Have a great Mom’s Day at Roger’s

  5. Ian Baldwin
    May 5, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Thanks Marsha, I am off on another “Calling it like I see it” week today, business is crankin’ back east and I want to be there to see it, good and less-good!

    Good is that some GCs we know posted record days yesterday, less-good is what they could have done if, as an owner said to me, “We’d waited on customers”!

  6. Steve Smith
    May 8, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Jolly good old Chap. I have always led by example despite the fact that I am admittedly over the top most of the time but then again that is what my customers love about me. As for my employees, I think I probably drive them nuts!

  7. Ernest Wertheim
    May 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Ian your comments are most valuable. Can you share with us how you teach people to have more confidence.
    I try to teach people to say: I ma sorry I do nto have the answer, but may I have the phone number and I will all you back ina day or two.The expert in this specific field has A DAY OFF TO DAY. This procedure will teach the sales person the answer but also how to follow up and develope a relationship with this customer.

    Ron from Armstrong: Recently I read that you go to the customer house and coach them with their design or gardening problems. How do you handle a question which you cannot answer or a problem that you cannot solve on the site. I think you are facing the same problem as the sales person at the store and you are a person that knows a lot. None of us have all the answers ,but we have an opprtunity to find them. I find it a great pleasure when I find an answer for our clients. Ian, some times the owner or manager is not a good teacher and we have to find a person that can do this well.
    Last but not least: all questions that we could not answer (all staff) should be documented and the correct answer should be posted for all staff to see or may be discuss THEM during the next short staff meeting. Some very seasonal questions could be posted on a blackboard for other customers to see. HAVE A WONDERFUL SPRING.

    1. Ian Baldwin
      May 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      Ernest: how nice to hear from you, thanks for your good input. I think confidence comes from a sense of having enough product knowledge to at least cope in that first minute and the clear mandate to become involved with the customer or consider a different occupation. The fact is that retail IS theater and being on the stage isn’t for everyone. But most people can be trained, encouraged, coerced, cajoled or bribed to at least say “Hello”. Selling is really just a conversation with a defined goal and most people can improve their conversational skills if they know why, how and have a goal for it themselves.

      But I just spent another week in GCs watching the avoidance game: we all have work to do!!


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