Being in a frontline service position is not just a Millennial generation thing. It’s a young worker thing. Less experienced workers are disproportionately represented in frontline service roles because these roles are often the lower-tier positions. In fact, most organizations seeking to scale their operations in any significant way tend to put a young (and therefore relatively inexpensive) workforce out front.
“How do you know us?” asks the manager of a large chain store. “You know us by the people behind the counter. The labor pool available for those jobs is usually pretty darned young. I can only hire who I can hire. But we get a lot of complaints about the younger counter help. Sometimes they are just unhelpful, distracted, doing their own thing, especially if the store is not too busy.”
We see this often in our research at RainmakerThinking. I call the social dynamic that develops among front-of-house workers in a customer-service environment the “cash register culture.” Because they spend hour after hour with their coworkers, their relationships with each other become the context of the job for some workers.
To turn “cash register” culture into “customer service” culture, restaurant leaders should teach younger employees these six best practices:
1. Make yourself available
Being available doesn’t necessarily require approaching customers, making eye contact, smiling, or extending verbal greetings, although this is the method many organizations favor.
“Anybody who eats in restaurants has had the experience of trying to get their server’s attention, and the server just won’t look at you,” says a senior executive at a large restaurant chain. “It’s more about being visible, unobtrusive, and paying very close attention to your tables, even while you are running around.”
He adds that while competitors might encourage front-facing employees to introduce themselves and “spit out some corny line,” some customers find this creepy. It’s better instead to be aware of guests and ready to serve.
2. Say as little as possible
The less employees say, the less chance there is of saying something distracting, confusing, annoying, wrong, or even offensive. Saying less also saves time in any discussion and gives more air space to the customer. It’s worth reminding young workers that most people prefer to talk rather than to listen. So let the customer do most of the talking.
3. When you do talk, choose your words carefully
The safest words to say to a customer usually end in a question mark. Open-ended questions are a good place to start. Once an employee really understands what the guest is saying, then he or she can ask specific clarifying questions.
Sometimes the most important words are the most basic; front-of-house workers should always say “please” and “thank you,” and never “I can’t help you” or “no.”
Perhaps the best way to help inexperienced workers choose their words carefully is to help them choose those words in advance. Managers should provide them them with prepared materials and encourage them to learn their lines and rehearse. The beauty of prepared materials is that they almost always provide a more thorough, precise, and attractive response than most frontline service personnel would otherwise offer on their own. These prepared materials also function as a training tool because employees usually learn some basic communication tactics that will serve them well anywhere they go.
4. Never wing it
When it comes to saying words out loud to customers, don’t guess, don’t hope, and don’t exaggerate. That means if it’s going to be 10 minutes, employees should not say it will only be a “couple of minutes.” Rather, they should say it will be at least 10 minutes. Sometimes the best thing to say is, “I don’t know. Let me find out for you.”
5. Request feedback
Managers should also teach young worker to confirm that the customer is happy and has no unsatisfied expectation or need at the moment. This can be accomplished by asking, “Is that acceptable?” or “Are you happy with everything?” or “Is there anything else you need?”
6. Problem solve
Once employees identify a problem, they should decide whether or not they have the knowledge, authority, and resources to solve it. Once these young workers learn what types of problems they should not try to solve alone, they can gather basic information quickly and pass it to the right person. The employee should still be kept in the loop of these problems so they can learn how was the situation handled and what information is readily available for future reference.
Customer service is a skill that does not become obsolete. Teach younger Millennials and inexperienced workers that every single customer-service interaction is an opportunity to practice and fine-tune this valuable skill. Remind them that every customer has his or her own sphere of influence and authority. Every customer is worth impressing. Impressive people are impressed by those are themselves positive, motivated, polite, focused on the task at hand, and willing to go the extra mile.
They will notice you. They will remember you. Learn their names, and they might learn yours.