Customer service is one of the most discussed and researched issues these days. I have read plenty articles on the topic, most of them giving tips to retailers, to managers, to assistants… but none of them was rightfully applicable in reality. All the articles seem to be written in the ideal marketplace, rather than in the crude world in which retailers have to operate. I have three+ years of experience as a customer assistant and as a supervisor, all for three different companies; therefore, I am now filling the gap and trying to explain the reality of shop assistants to managers and area managers, but not excluding the upper management of any given company.
1. Health and safety
This should rank above anything else. I know that the customers come first, but I am saying that they don’t. If your company lacks basic health and safety procedures, then you could find yourself in an always changing team. It has to be understood that health and safety is not just wet floors, signs, and clutter free shops. Health and safety is the treatment of people as well because we are living in times where mental health and personal well-being are highly important. I know that all companies have policies about mistreatment, bullying, etc., but what I know for a fact is that those are just policies. The reality is that how you treat people is a personality trait, thus employers have to actually be careful who they take on board, especially for management positions. Why? Because the team may easily end up with a manager that is by far nice to others but can fake smiles to customers. Considering that, when interviewed, we are only asked about going above and beyond for customers and being a good team player through examples, but never assessed on body language, tone, and hints if the stories are actually true, thus a quite high number of shops end up having an unfortunate management and, therefore, a rather weak team of staff. The rule that ’they don’t have to like you, but do what you say’ is a terrible saying from area managers to shop managers. They have to like you so that they do what you say. Having a team that is treated well, given the legal breaks, understood as human beings rather than entities who should fill the shelves, clean, and smile to customers no matter what makes it an actual happy store. The biggest issue is not being underpaid. The biggest issue is that while being underpaid, staff are expected to go above and beyond in unfortunate conditions such as never told something is done right, never taken in consideration that, like everyone, customer assistants can have a genuinely bad day, and most importantly, never listened to. I will come back to being listened to in the last paragraph. Heath and safety should not only cover the shop and customers. Health and safety must cover the team as well. Otherwise, exactly what is happening, employees tend to either resign after short periods or continue the work without any interest and care and letting this be seen by customers who, then, leave less nice reviews and may feel less and less welcomed to the store. Because regardless how nice or not nice a customer may be, they are still human beings who can perfectly understand that the shop assistant is a human being as well. It is only the companies that lack this understanding.
Health and safety is not just policies. Health and safety should not affect only procedures for the store and customers. Health and safety must apply to the staff as well.
2. Heavy lifting policies
Being hired in retail is a synonym for being a hard working person. Mostly at a physical level: the carrying, heavy lifting, arranging shelves and products, etc. No one who applies for a retail job ever thinks that it’s going to be easy peasy. But there is a massive difference between the real workload and what companies expect of staff. The idea that a person can handle anything is wrong, and the physical condition part of the employment questionnaire should be taken seriously. There are many customer assistants who have health issues because of the company that they work for. Back, joints, and feet pain are only some, and these are not to joke about. Companies throw the policies about correct lifting in the discussion, but the reality is that, literally, no one has time for those. Retail is fast pace and customer assistants have to deliver perfect service and usually handle massive heavy deliveries in almost no time. Moreover, the conditions in which the deliveries come may very well not permit a correct handling like the policies show. The correct timing of work is what companies prefer to skip. If less is more, then retail companies are failing. No customer assistant expects the job to be easy, but no customer assistant should have to sacrifice part of their health. These issues exist because of two reasons: management and upper management have zero experience as customer assistants and/or they never listen to their staff. They claim they do, but the reality is that one can have a deeper conversation with the walls rather than with a company’s management.
Heavy lifting is a real issue and policies for manual handling are never followed. Being correctly timed for your tasks would ensure healthy handling and a fair treatment towards the staff.
We all know that there are two types of customers: human and.. less human. The less human customers are those who think that they deserve everything, shop for leisure rather than need, and never actually smile. They are those who come back for refunds without the receipt and argue with the till operator. They are those who pick up items and leave them everywhere rather than at the till. Those who leave the shop messy without any remorse. Rude customers should never be treated nice. Why? Because everyone around them sees the behaviour. A fine person will never look down on someone who doesn’t smile to a shouting person. Human customers usually stand up for the staff member who has to endure some argument. And at the end of the day, a company that respects itself should respect fairness, and that is not the synonym of rudeness. Respect is a two-way street and allowing customers to misbehave in your store means not respecting yourself. ”The customer is always right” is something said by someone who never worked in retail or ever lived in any given society. No company truly believes that. If the customer would actually always be right, till operators will refund anything, at any given time, in any given conditions. Do they? No. Why? Because the customer has to prove that they are right (i.e. have the receipt). So then why allow misbehaviour? Because that does not affect profit margins, that only affects your staff. And do you mind about your staff? I’ll let you answer that. I am not suggesting mistreating customers or mirroring their rudeness, but I am advocating for a balance between fake smiles and crying in the staff room. There has to be a limit of allowed rudeness, and that should be shouting, used language, and touching in any sense (even a tap on the shoulder. Why? Because of the idea of personal space).
No one is always right. If companies would care about their staff, then there should be active policies on allowed levels of rudeness from customers.
4. Noise levels
This is actually more important than you would think. A noisy store is stressing for the customers that brows and check prices, those who line up for tills, and for the staff that usually spends more than 8 hours on the premises. Without any apology, I will argue that misbehaving babies and children should be not allowed in stores. Not only because running may cause some accident – I will get back to this, but because the noise levels create an unwelcoming, stressing, and ugly atmosphere. Babies may be cute and children fun, but not in retail. Why? Retail is a leisure activity for most of the individuals, thus requires a rather relaxing atmosphere. I don’t lack compassion for parents. Personally, I get it, it is hard to calm down a baby. But on the other hand, it is not really my or anyone else’s duty to. Considering that, I am not proposing banning parents with babies and children, I am saying that staff should be allowed to suggest that the parent may leave the premises for a second while the baby calms down. If the situation gives children, that is different. I said I will further explain and I am now. Running children and children who take items off shelves and put them someplace else are basically rude customers. The issue with the running is that if an accident happens, i.e. they fall, they break something, etc., by policy, it is the company’s fault. Let me tell you that it is the parents’ fault because children should behave, they have to be taught how to behave. And if they lack this, or parents don’t even try to regulate their behaviour, then these children are, in one word, spoiled. And the problem here is not only that they would hurt themselves and the company would pay a lot etc., strictly from a customer service point of view, why do other customers have to endure the misbehaviour? Quite a lot of times in the past three years I have been asked if I can suggest to a mother to leave the store because her baby was extremely loud and she was not trying to calm it down but was making noises back at it. I said I could not do that. But it did prove to me that I am right saying that not everyone wants high noise levels while shopping. I am not trying to insult or try to preach how people should raise their children here. I am saying that a store is not a playground. Nor a nursery. Nor a home. It is a public place. The same actions should be and are taken for drunk customers or those who are physically aggressive. Unfortunately, not for customers who are only verbally aggressive.
Retail is not a nursery or a playground. Staff and other customers have no obligation to bare high noise levels. If no trial to diminish the discomfort is made, customer assistants should have a say.
5. Being listened to
I am not expecting the workplace to be your therapist and I am not talking about that kind of listening anyway. But what management seems to forget is that someone follows the rules that they set. And if they do not communicate with those who actually work, the result is an unhappy, struggling team. As I was mentioning health and safety and the heavy lifting, there is no such thing as feedbacking in companies. No kind of meeting Pr online platform where the staff says something and management considers it and thinks over because, in the end, it is the staff that is affected. There is a genuine lack of interest in how smooth the shops work. Things like timing for tasks and rational action are the top two that a staff member will know better than management. By rational action I mean different policies in each business that are illogical, useless, and more time-consuming than positive towards customer experience. Each store and company will ask for different illogical actions. Obviously, there is a limit here too, that of rational feedbacking and bringing evidence.
Customer assistants do the work, thus they can assess the reality and logic of requirements. Employing a feedbacking system to listen to the staff would be a cost-free action that would further benefit the company.