What Happened to the Human Touch?
Think back to your last encounter with an employee of a retail store? Did that encounter meet your expectations? Did that encounter leave you ‘uplifted’ in some sense? Did that encounter, elevate your view of your fellow human beings? Did it make you feel good about this race of beings who call themselves human beings?
My suspicion is that your last encounter with the employees of a retail store showed up as rather mechanical. The human touch and the sense of aliveness that comes with the human touch was not present. And in not being present, all that took place was an interaction between you and the employee. The kind of interaction that can be and is being replaced by digital technologies.
Have you wondered why it is that so many retail store employees show up as lacking the human touch? What have you identified as the core causes? Did you come to the conclusion that the retail store staff don’t care about customers? Perhaps you thought to yourself that these employees are lazy, want to do the minimum, take no pride in their work. Did you determine that they simply do not have the soft skills? Perhaps you concluded that they lacked training and so should be trained in customer service skills.
Are retail employees given the space to be great with customers?
If this is your position then I invite you to consider this question: are retail employees given the space to be great with customers? Is it possible that retail employees want to do a good job, they want to be engaged in what they are doing, and they want to treat customers well. And yet often they find that they are not given the space to do this. Allow me to illustrate through real examples.
I know a young woman that has been working in one of the UK’s well known high street retailers for over a month. This high street retailer has been established for some time and tends to have a loyal customer base. And this retailer stresses the importance of customer service. Let’s call this young woman (Miss).
One day, after only about a week in her job, Miss was called over by a customer. The customer was on old woman (70+). The old woman was carrying a few bags, trying to get hold of her purse, and struggling to stay upright. The old woman asked Miss to help her. Miss provided the help that the old woman asked for: help her steady herself, help her walk over to the cashier, help her get her purse out of her handbag…..
The customer was grateful for the help that she received. She told Miss that. Miss was pleased with the way that she had conducted herself in helping the customer. What was her reward? She was told off for breaking company policy. What policy? The policy against touching customers. She was told that she should not have put her arm around the old woman to steady her. She was told that she should have simply walked the old woman to the nearest counter. And there the customer could have steadied herself. When Miss explained that it had been necessary to put her arm around the old woman she was simply told that it was against company policy.
A week or so later Miss was stopped by another customer, an older man in his 60s. This customer could not find the clothes he was looking for. Miss told him where they were and offered to take him there. Once there, the customer asked for Miss help-advice in selecting certain products. Miss gave the help that this customer asked for. In all this encounter lasted around 30 minutes. In that time Miss had learned a lot about the customer (articulate, lost his wife, son gone to Australia, lonely…) and had shared some of her life that was relevant to the conversation. For most of this time, Miss was worried that management would tell her off for spending too much time helping one customer. What to do, do what the customer is asking for? Or to make an excuse, walk away, and safeguard her job? Miss chose to stay and finish helping the customer.
Once the customer had completed his shopping, Miss walked him to the cashier. At the cashiers desk the customer thanked her, wished her well, and gave her a hug. It occurred to Miss that the right thing to do was to reciprocate the hug. Even just a little touch on his shoulder to say ‘thank you’. Instead, Miss found herself standing still, arms hanging by her sides, mindful of the company policy, and fearful of what management would say. It showed up awkward for her and she is sure that it must have showed up as cold-distant-awkward to the customer – as if he had done something wrong. That was not the experience Miss wanted the customer to remember.
It occurs to me that this is the way to turn human beings into automatons, drive the human touch out of the retail environment, and thus negate the one lever retail stores have to differentiate themselves against e-tailers: the human touch. Look if social business means anything meaningful then it means this: putting our humanity into the game of business and there is nothing more human than the genuine human touch.
Next time you and I come across an employee that is going through the motions, it may be worth suspending our judgement and not blaming the employee. It may be more useful to look at the broader system in which the employee is embedded. And looking at this system, the smarter question may be: what is it about the broader system that calls this employee to turn and up and go through the motions as opposed to put himself fully into his job and thus show up with aliveness?