Customer Experience Through The Eyes Of The Frontline Retail Employee

Perspective. If we are to improve the performance of human worlds (couple, family, neighbourhood, team, department, business, nation…) perspective taking is essential. It occurs to me that the simplest form of perspective taking is attentive-receptive listening to those who find themselves embedded in the human world that one is interested in.  The deepest from of perspective taking is to enter into the lives, and live the lives, of those whose perspective one wishes to become intimately familiar with.

What did I learn when listened to the perspective (lived experience) of frontline retail employees who work for one of the big UK retailers?

On many days the store is short-staffed. Those who are present and ready for work find themselves stressed. The standards are high – for merchandising, store cleanliness, customer service…  There is a lot to get done. The pressure is on. This calls people to take short-cuts (including putting their health & safety at risk), bypass policies and practices to do that which needs to be done.

The folks dealing with customers on the frontline are not adequately trained – as in training that comes through apprenticeship.  Why are they not adequately trained? Because the stores are short-staffed. Due to the short-staffing, the pressure is on to throw new frontline employees into the deep end. This places the new employees under stress: these employees face demanding customers, they are aware that their colleagues are counting on them, they know that their manager is judging them, and they are intimately aware that they lack the contextual understanding and experimental know-how to do things well.  They do their best. And their best is not enough. They are aware that their best is enough.

Folks distant and cut-off from the reality of the world of the store (that particular store) make decisions for that store. These decisions whilst sound in theory are impractical given the reality of that store.  Yet the folks in that store – including the manager of that store – have no power to affect or challenge these decisions. So there are substantial and frequent store refreshes and not enough staff to merely do the day to day tasks. The product range is expanded and there is not enough shelf space. Customers complain of products not being in stock yet the replenishment decisions are made by computers and remote others in charge of store replenishment. New machinery is introduced that does not fit well into the store and makes lives harder for the folks in the store ….  All of this increases the level of stress experienced by the folks working in the stores.

Customers are demanding at best, rude at their worst. They demand perfection: a seamless experience. They are encouraged in this demanding-ness by the folks higher up in the business who designate and promote services (and service standards) which are impractical given the reality of that store. Folks serving these customers want to provide a good service and experience a certain kind of human encounter with customers. Yet, they find themselves in a reality in which providing merely an average customer experience is all that can be reasonably provided.  They experience the withering look of many customers. And some customers, more and more these days, who are condescending, critical, and rude. All of this increases the level of stress experienced by these front line employees.

Their employer and their manager does not care for them. The folks experience themselves as not appreciated, not valued, not loved.  It is not just that these folks are paid the minimum wage. It is not just that if they arrive five minutes late for work then fifteen minutes of pay is docked. It is not that they are expected to stay up to half an hour later than their shift and they do not get paid for this half an hour. It is not that they are not adequately trained. It is not just that they are rarely given their allotted lunch break. It is more. It is the gap that they experience (on a daily basis) between the way the company expects them to treat customers and the way they are treated by the company. Is it then any surprise that the stores are regularly and frequently short-staffed – in numbers and in terms of experience/cable employees?  Who wants to work in such an environment? And even those who do work in such an environment quit as soon as the can quit.

If you are working in an organisation and concerned about improving the customer experience,  I end by posing the following questions:

  • Are the folks that work for us and with us less worthy of care, consideration, and respect than folks upon whom we change the label Customer?
  • What is the likelihood that at a distance voice of the customer surveys unconceal the kind of reality that I have shared with you here – the reality of the folks interacting directly with customers?
  • Do your customer journey maps give you an adequate feel for the lives of customers and the lives of the people on the front lines who interact with your customers on a daily basis?

If you are a customer then ask you to be mindful of human worth and dignity in your dealings with the folks that serve you – especially when things are not going right. I ask you to consider that the person is not merely an employee. S/he is a human being who is doing the best s/he can given the circumstances s/he finds herself in.  If you were in h/er position you would most likely do that which s/he is doing.  A kind word can light up the world.

I thank you for your listening it is that which continues to call me to share my speaking with you.  I leave you to grapple with what I have shared and make it mean that which you make it mean

Do You Allow Your Employees The Space To Be Great With Customers?

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?

Customer Experience: why haven’t more retailers gone bust?

Plenty of UK based retailers have failed during the course of 2012

According to the Centre for Retail Research, some of the bigger names that have failed in 2012 include:

  • JJB Sports – the struggling sportswear retailer with 4,000 staff and 180 stores;
  • Game Group –  largest specialist video game retailer in Europe with 1,300 stores and 10,000 employees;
  • Clinton Cards  – 628 Clinton and 139 Birthdays stores,  8,500 employees;
  • Julian Graves – natural food store,  around 189 stores and 755 employees (mostly part-time);
  • Allders of Croydon – third-largest department store in the UK, 300 employees;
  • Peacocks –fashion chain, 550 stores and 9,600 employees;
  • La Senza – lingerie retailer with 146 stores and 2,600 employees;
  • Past Times – modern antique-based business selling retro Wm Morris, Pre-Raphaelite etc merchandise, 100 stores and around 1000 employees.
  • Blacks Leisure – outdoor sports, camping and recreational stores, there are 98 Blacks stores, 208 Milletts shops and 3,885 employees.

These failures come on top of another notable list of failures in 2011: Auto-Windscreens, Barratts (shoe chain), MFI (furniture retailer),Comet (electrical retailer), Jane Norman (womens fashion chain), Habitat (homeware), Focus (DIY chain), Oddbins (wine retailer)…..

As ‘bad’ as this may seem, I continue to ask myself: why haven’t more retailers failed?  Are you wondering why I ask this question?  Let me share some recent experiences with you.

I turn up at Currys keen to buy and leave disappointed

My sister needed a laptop and she didn’t have the confidence to buy the right one.  After quizzing her I found out that she needed a basic computer for her and young son.  As time was short, I did not have the luxury of buying online and waiting several weeks (my perception) for the laptop to arrive.  So I did something that I do not do often – go to a physical retail store.

After browsing for a while at the local Currys store (formerly a Dixon store) I selected the right laptop.  And whilst there were a number of sales folks in the store, there was no person there to help me.  So I approached the chap at the counter, he listened and went to the stock room.  On returning, he told me that the laptop on display was the last one in stock.  Noticing my reluctance to say “Yes, I’ll take it!”, he offered to take 10% of the price, I didn’t bite.  It was what come next that surprised me.

This helpful sales chap accessed his computer system and told me that a number of stores around the area had that particular model in stock.  Yet, he did not offer me the option of placing my order there and then and having the laptop delivered to me, say, the next day.   I may have been delighted or at least satisfied with that option.

The Strategist and Customer Experience consultant in me, cries out: “Why not?  Why are you making it hard for me to buy from you?”  Furthermore, I ask myself: “Why do you have a product on display that you are not in a position to make available to the customer who wants to buy it?”   So I left that store disappointed, my need/desire to buy a laptop thwarted by retailers who simply do not think/act in terms of the customer experience.  Retailers who are still flogging products and who do not think/act multi-channel.  I could not help asking myself: “Why has this store not gone bust?”

I turn up at PC World and experience frustration

It was the last day before I was due to travel over and see my sister.  So I was clear that I absolutely had to find the right laptop and walk out of the store with it.  The PC World store that I walked into occurred as huge and left me with the impression that the store would have what I was looking for.  After browsing a little while I found the right laptop.  Great, now how do I buy it?

I looked for sales assistants and I could not see any.  So I walked several aisles and found someone that looked like a sales assistant.  He told me that it was not his job and would find the right person for me, then walked away.  I waited and waited.  I remember thinking “If I did not have to buy this laptop, I would not wait any longer!”.   Some 10 minutes later someone did arrive.  He has helpful and yet it struck me that he was not in any hurry to get what I was looking for: our perspectives on time were out of sync.

Once he returned from the stockroom he got busy cross-selling software.  Given my experience of ‘having to fend for myself’ and ‘being at the mercy of the store and their way of doing things’ which did not match my needs, I was no mood to listen to the sales pitch.  I paid and was delighted to have accomplished my mission.

As I was leaving I wondered “What is the point of having such a big store if you don’t put in place the sales assistant to make it easy for customers to buy?”  And again I asked myself “How is it that this store/retailer has not gone bust?”

Kristin Zhivago has the answer to my question

In her book Roadmap to Revenue, Kristin writes:

“Companies always make it too difficult for buyers to do business with them…....

So often, it is the determination of the buyer, and the intensity of the buyer’s need, that completes the sale, rather than any assistance that the seller offers.”

An opportunity for Amazon to improve and get more customers?

Amazon is a great company

We all know or should know that when it comes to customer-centricity (as embodied by the products, the shopping experience, the useful recommendations, the helpful customer service…) Amazon is one of the greats.  And whilst Jeff Bezos is in charge I’d place my bets in favour of Amazon v Apple when it comes to continuing to be customer-centric given that Steve Jobs is no longer around.  So where is the opportunity to improve?  The Kindle.

The Kindle is a great product – we, the customers love it

When I read the reviews on Amazon for the Kindle, on or,  I find that the majority of customers are delighted with their Kindle.  So what is it that I have to offer Amazon?  What is the opportunity that Amazon has to improve and get more customers?  Let me share a story with you.

This morning I was out shopping (looking for a new television – the wife and children want a new one!) and popped into one of the big chain retailers in the UK.  As I was making my way to the TVs I noticed an elderly gent (with an ear piece) looking at the 6″ Kindle retailing for £89.  Given that the stand from which I operate is that of being of service and contributing to a ‘world that works’ I stopped to be of service.  I shared with him that I had purchased that Kindle and was delighted with it.  He mentioned that he had the bigger Kindle that retails for £139 and was delighted with that.  I went on to share that I’d been surprised at how much I loved the Kindle given that I love the touch, feel and usability of the book in its physical form.   That is when the conversation became really interesting.

This old gentleman told me that he, his wife and friends read a lot of books.  They grew up with books and they are a great way to pass the time.  He and many of his friends had switched to the Kindle because as they are old it is easier to buy and read books via the Kindle.  How exactly?  His response: we don’t have to make our way to bookstores (not an easy thing to do when you are old), we don’t have to carry books home and we do not have to struggle to read the books.  My question: what is the difference with the Kindle that makes the book more readable for you?  His answer:  with the Kindle I can increase the font size so that I can easily read the book!

So where is the opening for Amazon to improve and get more customers?

Being inquisitive I asked this old gent if he was entirely satisfied with the Kindle?  No, was his answer.  I asked if all of his friends were using the Kindle?  No, was his answer.  My next question: why not?  Can you guess his response?  Put yourself in his shoes – what is it like to be old?  You are physically challenged: the eyes don’t work well, the ears don’t work that well, the hands don’t work that well….

Amazon you can design a Kindle specifically for older people.  They love the purchasing process and the ability to increase the font size is such a boon it helps make reading both possible and enjoyable.  Yet, the controls are not easy for the old folks to work – the old folks simply do not have the dexterity to use small, difficult to use, controls.  And you can make the screen bigger.  Why?  Because the old folks use big font sizes and with that get only so much text on the screen which in turn means that they have to use the controls more often to flick from one screen (‘page’) to the next.  This becomes tiring if your hands/fingers don’t work as well as they used to.

It is worth investigating given that there are more and more older people living longer and longer.  Intuition suggests that there is a sizeable customer segment here that is worth catering for especially as it is the older folks that have grown up within a culture of reading books.

Finally: how do you get access to what you don’t know that you don’t know about your customers?

By stepping out of the office and into the real world: deliberately being where you customers are, watching what they do, acting out of stance of being of service and learning from/about your customers, striking up conversations with customers…… Until this encounter with this old gent I had assumed that only the young and technically literate were buying and using the Kindle.  I had discounted the older folks.  And I had no idea that the key benefits of the Kindle for older folks were the shopping experience (instant) and the ability to increase the font size!  I didn’t know that I didn’t know because I am not old and these things have never entered into my conscious mind.

The future of retailing: is it really all about technology?

I recently viewed the following slide deck (PSFK Future of Retailing Report 2011) and was struck by how the introduction focusses upon the human, the social – shopping as a social experience as much as an economic one, and yet the rest of the report focusses almost exclusively on the wonders of technology and the difference it will make to the shopping experience.  I believe that the report implies that by putting an array of technologies into the retail stores less staff will be needed and possibly these staff need to have less product knowledge because they will be able to access that information through handheld devices connected to the right systems.  Let’s just take a look at these assumptions.

Do you find that life is more complicated or less complicated?  Do you find that you are more time or less time?  Would you prefer to spend your time doing research, talking with your social network, evaluating options, find the right products and then making the purchase?  Do you do that voluntarily or out of necessity because either you do not trust retailers or find their staff to lack the product knowledge?  Do you do that for all product categories and before every single purchase?   Do you look forward to serving yourself through the website, the IVR and FAQ’s never encountering another human being at the company your are doing business with?  Can you really imagine turning up to the retail store, scanning in the bar codes, reading the reviews, reading how the product was manufactured, getting your friends opinions…..?  How long will that take?  Do you have the time?  Can you do that standing up in the store with lots of other shoppers jostling around?

What would it be like if you trust the retailers?  Retailers that stock products that you can trust – the quality is sound, they are fit for purpose; the products are appropriately priced; there are plenty of welcoming, helpful and knowledgeable staff who can and do help you with making the right choice including selecting the right products.  What if these staff are also enthusiastic about the products that they are selling?  Do you think some of that enthusiasm will rub off on you?

Allow me to share a personal story with you because I believe that it illustrates another perspective on why and how we shop in the retail stores.

I was handed an iphone 4 and told that I needed to get a protective cover for it – sound advice given that it is an expensive advice.  Yet, I had never owned an iphone and so did not know what kind of protective cover to get.  So I started by observing and noticed that different people had different covers and so I wondered which one would be right for me.  I even asked a couple of people for recommendations yet the recommendations landed as lukewarm to me so I lacked confidence on those recommendations.  Then I turned to the internet and there were all kinds of covers and all kinds of reviews.  At the end of this process I simply felt that I had wasted my time – too much choice, too many opinions and fundamentally I could not touch/feel/use the cover to see what it added to the weight, bulk and use of the iphone.  So what did I do?

As the retail centre was only five minutes walk I went shopping.  Where did I go?  Carphone Warehouse.  Why?  Probably because I have a mental map that says ‘independent advice’, ‘friendly in the past’ and ‘stocks lots of accessories’.   I walked over to the accessories section and started looking.  That did not help me because the signposting was poor – I simply could not find the iphone4 covers.  So I turned to the three people on the counter and asked them for help.  One young man stepped forward with enthusiasm.  He showed me the iphone covers and there was considerable choice.  So he asked me what I was looking for and I explained.  He then made his recommendation with conviction and enthusiasm yet he did not stop there.  Without asking he opened up the packaging, took out the cover and snapped it into place and invited me to feel it and use the phone.  I did and the cover did the job perfectly and it was reasonably priced as well.  So I thanked him for his help and bought the cover – all of this took less than five minutes; I had wasted some 3o+ minutes shopping online.

Insights into the shopping experience

There are some categories of products that we simply have to see, touch, hear, feel and experience in order to know if a particular product is right for us.   And this is where offline retailers have an advantage over etailers.

Sometimes it is really hard to choose because we have no prior experience and there are so many products to choose from.  This is where knowledgeable, enthusiastic, helpful staff can make all the difference: right there and then they can learn what you want and let you experience their recommendations.

There are occasions when you simply cannot wait a day or more to get your hands on stuff that you need.  Again this is where offline retailers have a great advantage because we can turn up and walk out with the stuff that we want when we exit the store – clearly not so for all products e.g. fridges, washing machines etc.

Convenience matters.  The fact that I could easily pop into the shopping centre made it that much more likely that I would do so when I needed to buy something quickly – on that day.

I enjoyed the human interaction with the young man that sorted out my problem for me / helped me find the right cover.  He is no longer just another face he is a human being to me: I know that he has an iphone, that it is white, that he had considered buying the cover he recommended to me but did not do so because it did not go with the colour of his iphone…… Put differently I was enriched by the social encounter (in the real world) which simply would not have occurred in the online world. And this social encounter matters to many people – the challenge is to get it right by retailers investing in the right people and the right number of people.


The basics of good retailing have not changed: location, merchandising, knowledgeable staff, great service, value for money….  Some retailers are suffering because on the whole many retailers have forgotten these fundamentals especially the human and social aspects of the shopping experience. Despite the lure of technology what really matters in the offline retail world is the human to human encounter:  the people that we meet in the stores, how helpful they are and how they make us feel about ourselves, our fellow human beings and the world that we live in.  The proper role of technology is to add to this hi-touch not to detract from it or to replace it.   I can imagine that there is a consultant or IT vendor out there selling the fact that with the right technology in place the retailers can dispense with their human staff: the customers will simply turn up and serve themselves or maybe robots will do the work of the human beings. To be in love with this dream is to be fundamentally mistaken about human beings and shopping.

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