Please Pick Me!

Do you remember when you were still a kid at school and the teacher asked the class a question? Do you remember that immediately a whole bunch of hands enthusiastically went up, and the kids who knew the answer clicked their fingers and almost begged to be picked? “Pick me, Miss. Pick me, please!” was the chorus.

I don’t know what happens between the ages of eight and twenty three, but have you noticed how, in most businesses where customers have to wait, customer service people have a great tactic for ignoring you? They seem to have perfected it to an art, and it mostly involves completely ignoring you. But they can’t be too obvious, or customers will become very angry, so they kind of pretend that there is something else occupying them, and look everywhere else except at you personally – usually downwards. It doesn’t matter if there are five of them and only one of you, it’s like a game – to see who can avoid the customer best.

If customers are lucky, the bank or retailer will have some semblance of a queuing system in which the next customer in order gets served. Occasionally someone will shout, “Next!” or, if customers are really lucky, there may be one of those boards with some little messages showing you to walk to till number 34. One retailer has an infuriating pre-recorded voice that says, “Next customer please,” but by the time you’ve heard it for the seventeenth time in your average Saturday morning queue, you want to bash the speaker in.

But being the world’s greatest optimist, I still hope for a miracle. One day I’m going to walk into a bank or a supermarket or an airline check in queue and there will be six people shouting, “Me! Me! Please pick me! I’m the best there is here!” (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

You see, these days, doing what we did last year is just not enough. I remember when the first bank manager who eventually had the wisdom to arrange a few poles and a rope, and made customers take their turn without having to pick a queue, I was delighted! “Wow! They aren’t going to serve some idiot who came in after me!” Today I take this for granted, and, in fact, I tend to get really irritated when I don’t see this simple system in place. (Did you hear that, McDonalds?)

But I don’t only want to talk about queues in this article: I want to discuss all customer touch points, where we treat our customers with that same enthusiasm of those children. Would you respond to them in a way which surprises and delights them?

Here are some examples: In most businesses that experience a power failure, the first thing they do is shut the doors immediately – to stop customers from stealing stuff – and then you have to dump your stuff without paying because the tills aren’t working.

But not at the Spar in St. Francis Bay: The first thing that happened is that the employees each grabbed a high-visibility reflective waistcoat and a torch – and then took customers individually through the store working through the shopping list and helping the customers find what they need. They then escorted them politely to the tills for payment and moved on to help the next customer.

And just to show that it’s not a fluke, I have heard so many good stories about Spar recently. I heard of a woman who said she likes cherry and apple pie, and so now they make one especially for her every Friday. (It’s become a best seller apparently, because now other customers also buy it.) And how about the old lady who broke her walking stick in a store in Harrismith? They bought her a new one – even though it wasn’t their fault that it broke. But my favourite was about someone who ordered a special birthday cake for her daughter, and spelt the name wrong on the special form that gets filled in. (She was in a rush, she claims.) When she saw “their” mistake about 30 minutes before the party was due to start, she telephoned the manager in a huff, and he apparently immediately drove to her house with the Confectioner, and they re-did all the icing on the cake with the correct spelling – at no charge. When they showed her the form she had completed, she was so embarrassed, “But,” she told me, “You know what the best was? He made me feel so good about it by telling me that he makes mistakes like this all the time, and he was just happy he could help!” A really great example of “Pick me, please!”

At another SPAR Store in Johannesburg, owner Max makes sure that when it is raining heavily outside, employees are there with massive umbrellas to escort customers with their shopping to their cars. I’ve heard that they will deliver groceries to your house in an emergency, and that one day they opened the store well after closing time since a customer called them because she decided to throw a matric-results party at the last minute. All of these, and other legendary stories of great service, were done for free.

I am delighted to tell you that Max and his partner recently purchased a second store in the same brand.

I was recently stuck in a queue at Avis in Durban on the day that the SA’s Princess Charlene Wittstock, (married to Prince Albert of Monaco,) arrived with her new hubby for the Winter Olympics draw. There were so many people, even in the express queue, and I just knew that this was going to take forever. But then a young lady from Avis who recognised me came up to me and asked for my license. 30 seconds later she brought me my car key and told me where it was parked, and I felt like I was the prince that day. “Pick me, please!”

I was at the Shangri La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur recently and about two minutes before the conference was due to start, I remembered I’d left my course handouts in a box in my room on the 18th floor. I had about three seconds of calmness, and then panicked, and excused myself from a conversation with some delegates, explaining what I had just done. A waiter from the coffee station heard this, and he said, “May I get your box from your room so that you don’t have to miss the start?” I was so relieved because it would have made me look so stupid arriving late, and I gave him my room card. Ten minutes later he slipped in from one of the side doors, and dropped the box next to my seat without a word, but with a flashing smile. “Pick me, please!”
How can you create the same spirit and energy in your business? It’s not about the brand and the store layout, nor even about the stock availability. (These are given.) It is about the people.

First, you and your managers have to completely and utterly believe that great service experiences are worthwhile, and that there is a good return on all your efforts. (At another differently-owned store in the same group, and literally 7km. down the road, the managers are surly, treat the staff poorly, and seem disdainful of customers. Funny thing is, they never seem to be full.)

But if you believe that your delighted customers are the key to your success, you will find the time and energy to focus on them, rather than sit in your office negotiating with suppliers or doing your paperwork. You will be out there, talking to customers and getting to know them, understanding their needs, and making sure that everything is just perfect for them. When they leave your store they will walk out with a smile on their face, and their day will be just a little bit better than when they first walked in.

Second, you will spend time chatting with your team, inspiring and motivating them to be the best they can be, and being an example of how they must behave towards customers. You will explain how you want things done, and give them a chance to tell you what they think. You will coach and train them in all the things that you have learned, and praise them for what they do well. You will be the source of their smiles and happiness so that they would not dream of upsetting customers or moving to another job.

Looking after your customers doesn’t have to be a drag. In fact, I’d suggest that when you do something nice for them, it also improves the quality of your life, and you get to sleep better at night. I know I’ve got lots of little guardian angels in my life as a customer, people who help me when I need it most, people who respond with that same energy and enthusiasm of children wanting to be the first to answer the question.

The question is: Are you one of them?

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