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  • Serving the Crowd: Seven Customer Service Principles

    It's easy to lose sight of giving each customer individual attention when a crowd is lined up 20 deep during a holiday rush. In such hectic situations, you and your employees are probably focused on simply filling the orders, ringing up the sales and moving customers along. But you shouldn't sacrifice the quality of your service for the sake of efficiency and crowd control during busy times. Here are some scenarios you may face and principles for dealing with them.

    Every customer deserves their share of your attention.

    You have a line of customers waiting for service at the cooler. The woman you are waiting on is indecisive. The man next in line impatiently announces, "All I need is a single rose."

    Thinking of a customer as taking up "too much" of your time is a dangerous attitude. Your job is to give each customer the amount of your time it takes to satisfy their needs and make a sale.

    If you rush the customer to a decision, she may not get what she really wants and you will have defeated your purpose. And, if you ignore the impatient customer in line behind her, you risk losing his business completely.

    Here's what to do:

    Acknowledge the impatient customer. "I will be able to help you with your rose in just a moment" is an appropriate response that lets him know he has been heard.

    Quickly consider your options for serving these two customers as efficiently as possible. Can you get another available employee to help the man who needs a rose? Is the customer you are presently waiting on truly ready to make a decision or does she need more time to browse?

    If you think she needs more time to browse, give her the option: "Do you mind if I help this gentleman while you're deciding? Can I show you anything else before I go?"

    If she says, "Yes", you could handle the next customer and return to her when she's ready.

    If she indicates that she does need your immediate help, then you should give her your undivided attention, respond to her preference cues by guiding her decisions and answer her questions thoroughly. Resist the urge to rush her through the transaction.

    Keep customers waiting in line by acknowledging and occupying them.

    Your employees have been instructed to give each customer in line the same high level of service and undivided attention. Yet, you occasionally observe that some of the customers at the end of the line get tired of waiting their turn and leave your store without buying anything.

    You won't be able to keep every customer in your store. Some people are just too impatient to wait in any line. But you can do some things that will keep most people satisfied, occupied and engaged while waiting.

    First, and most important, acknowledge them periodically. Nothing is more damaging to customer relations than adopting an attitude of "I'm too busy to deal with you right now," and ignoring a waiting line of customers.

    Make eye contact with people in line and tell them you'll be with them soon. Say "Hello" to individuals in line while you are serving others. These simple acknowledgments can go a long way in making a wait seem shorter.

    Alleviate some of the boredom inherent in waiting. For example, during holidays, you could provide coffee or other refreshments in areas that can be reached by people in line. Also, these areas are a good place to put stacks of customer newsletters, brochures and other informational or promotional materials.

    Give customers some self-serve options by offering bouquets that are ready-to-go near the cash register. Place pens and a stack of order forms with instructions on filling in the customer and recipient's names and addresses on a nice clipboard at the counter. This allows customers to voluntarily help themselves receive speedier service.

    Divide duties for smoother work and crowd flow.

    In order to handle the rush, you hire several temporary workers. In the thick of the rush, you observe — to your dismay — that instead of serving the customers quickly and keeping the line flowing, your employees just seem to be getting in each other's way.

    The solution to this problem is a matter of training your employees how to operate efficiently as a team. Just as "too many cooks spoil the broth," too much help at the cooler, wrapping table or cash register can have a paradoxical effect on workflow, creating even longer waits for customers. Delegate specific duties to your front-end people, so that some will answer phones and/or take orders. Some will assist at the front cooler, some will wrap flowers for waiting customers and others will ring sales at the cash register. This approach will help you avoid traffic jams on the sales floor and other work stations and reduce duplication of efforts, while moving lines of customers more quickly.

    Avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

    A customer places a wire order and insists that you send it while he waits to be sure he gets what he wants.

    If you find yourself in the position of doubting that an order will be filled to specification by a filling florist, then it is probably too late to place that order without a second choice.

    Explain to the customer why he or she needs a second choice before making any guarantees.

    If the order is placed within Teleflora's cut-off time for guaranteed delivery, you are safe on timing but not for a specific product. Potential explanations include "The filling florist may be out of those flowers and/or the container at this point. What would you like for a second choice? Is tomorrow's delivery okay?"

    Get the customer's agreement to send the order under those conditions and assure him or her that you will take care of the order. Tell the customer that you will contact them if there is any problem.

    Sending every order while each customer waits is a habit many well-intentioned florists may adopt — but it is also an extremely inefficient method of satisfying customers. It causes them to wait longer while not necessarily receiving better service. Furthermore, it sets up unrealistic expectations when you are suddenly faced with a crowd of customers who all want their orders called out while they wait.

    Don't lower your service standards for undesirable sales.

    During a particularly busy day, a customer comes to your counter with a bouquet she bought at the grocery store, asking if she can buy a packet of preservative and an enclosure card.

    This scenario presents a moral dilemma of sorts. You'll ask yourself, "Why should I provide extras on a purchase not made in my store? How would I profit from giving this customer what she wants?"

    You might also resent the woman for standing in line among "legitimate" customers and taking up your time with a "non-profitable" request.

    However, look at this situation from a customer service perspective. Here's a person who shopped elsewhere, yet still needs your services.

    If you flatly refuse her request, she is likely to continue shopping at the grocery store, but will also avoid your shop in the future — even when the supermarket lacks what she needs.

    If you help her out, you give her a chance to experience the personal service for which independent florists are famous and will endear her to your shop. You may very well win a new customer this way.

    This approach doesn't mean you have to give her a card and a packet of flower food for free, but do supply it for her and ask if there is anything else with which you can help her.

    Be sure that you don't sell her accessories that have your shop name imprinted on them. You don't want the recipient to think the grocery store flowers came from your shop.

    Complaints need immediate acknowledgment and attention.

    An irate customer calls your shop. She has a complaint about her order and asks to speak to the employee who took her order earlier that day. But the employee is immersed in serving a line of twelve people waiting at the cooler.

    Your first reaction during hectic times is that you have customers in your store who need help, so you don't have time to deal with a "complainer" on the spot.

    On the other hand, making an irate customer wait on hold or refusing her request to speak to a particular employee can escalate the conflict as well as destroy the relationship with this patron. You'll lose her business and she'll tell her family and friends of how dissatisfied she was with your shop.

    You have two options in this situation:

    Relieve the requested employee so that he or she can help the irate customer or identify yourself as the owner and offer your assistance in the matter. Many times, customers will be more satisfied if they can talk to a manager or owner.

    If she refuses to talk to you and you are unable to allow the employee to leave his or her post, you should take a detailed message and then assure the customer that the employee will contact her within a specified — and realistic — period of time.

    Service both "live" customers in your shop and phone sales at the same time, by reserving a space in line for the phone customer.

    During the mad rush the evening before Mother's Day, the phone is ringing off the hook. All your employees are busy with customers in the store. So you ask the customer you are helping to wait just a moment while you answer the phone. The customer on the phone asks, "What type of flowers do you have in stock right now? What kinds of plants do you have? What kinds of fruit baskets can you make?"

    Do phone shoppers have as much right to take up your time as customers who shop in your store in person? You bet they do.

    In this situation, you left a customer in the middle of a sale to handle a call. This is acceptable so long as the pause is brief and you apologized to the customer you were waiting on. You need to acknowledge the customer on the phone, and then put the phone on hold to finish the customer's sales on the sales floor. What should you say to the phone customer? At this point, it is essential to keep him or her satisfied even while waiting for assistance. Take a look at the following options for handling this situation:

    Poor — "You'll have to wait, I'm with another customer now."

    Better — "Would you mind holding for just a few minutes? Someone will be with you as soon as possible to take your order. Thanks for waiting."

    During such times, remember that you are selling more than just flowers and gifts — you are also in the business of selling service. The quality of attention you and your employees give to each customer is as important as the quality of your products. A hurried response or short comment is the equivalent to giving someone wilted flowers.

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