Ian Baldwin: It’s Never OK To Ignore Your Customers

Ian Baldwin: It’s Never OK To Ignore Your Customers

IanBaldwinProfilePicIt’s OK not to know the answers

Ah, spring: the daffodils, the greening lawns, the plum blossom. And of course, there is also the Bobcat that now won’t start, new truck drivers who don’t know your “before 10 a.m.” policy, the phones that didn’t re-charge overnight and the customers: oh yes, “them”!

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Every year, spring seems to arrive as if it were a surprise to many (like an ice storm in Atlanta). Garden retailers take in more on the first busy Friday than in the previous four weeks. By 11 a.m. on Saturday, you have already beaten the sales for the entire month of January, yet employees are unprepared for the stress, hired and thrown in the deep end (or allowed to continue set-up “task” jobs even as the parking lot is bulging). The next ten weeks should pay a year’s bills. This is intense stuff and not for the faint-hearted, nor for the shy or the task-obsessed. The next few weeks are about people, specifically, customers.

After many years of walking through retail garden businesses, I am still amazed at how easy it is to be ignored by the people on the payroll that day. I don’t mean to suggest these people are lazy or disinterested. They are often busy, even overwhelmed, with a task list from their leaders. But somewhere in the training, orientation and mentoring, a crucial behavior becomes lost.

Mantra

So even with all the caveats about hiring earlier, selecting for character and training for knowledge and so on, here’s the Baldwin spring mantra for the next few weeks:

“It’s OK not to know, but it’s not OK to avoid customers because you may not know.”

So, look up, catch eye contact, smile and welcome your wages coming your way. Engage with a non-invasive “Good morning! Sunshine (or warmth/clouds/rain) at last!,” and then pause to read the customer’s response. That’s all it takes, literally!

Been There, Done That

I have been there. At 18 I remember lifting, carrying and digging my way through spring, keeping my head down and my eyes on the job, praying that customers would not approach me and ask me a question I was sure I would not be able to answer. “The boss knows everything, ask him,” I thought. “This is my first spring, how would I know when to plant sweet peas? I am just filling the tables with them; please, oh please, don’t walk over here.”

Obviously, the more product knowledge and experience they have, the more confident the retail employee will be, and the greater chance the customer has of being engaged by a smiling face, instead of looking at busy people with their heads down. But retail is theater and is all about self-confidence. If you don’t like that moment on “thin ice,” don’t volunteer to go on stage.

Fair Game

No one knows everything and never will. This industry and its products are evolving so quickly, even the veterans have a hard time keeping up to date with PK (Product Knowledge). But employees in garden retail cannot let their own lack of knowledge govern their behavior towards paying customers who don’t know or care if the employee has been there two days or 20 years. Anyone in uniform is fair game.

If this frightens you, retailing may not be a good fit for you. If it encourages you, congratulations and welcome to a great industry! The day will be much more fun and the customers much happier if you look “open for business.” Spending your time avoiding customers’ eyes can add up to a long, long day!

So for now, I wish you a “heads up and happy spring!”

To see other essays like this one, visit consultant Ian Baldwin’s “Bits & Bobs” blog.