Today some friends and I went to BJ’s for dinner. We quickly developed a rapport with our waitress, inviting her to sit at our table briefly to chat. At one point there was a slight misunderstanding with a drink which she apologized for and wanted to make right. Long story short: she walked up to our table at the end of our meal and said, “Two pizookies are on their way; just pretend it’s your birthday.” Here is why it is important that employees feel empowered and have enough autonomy to be able to do this: I am talking about it now and I will tell many more people this story.
Giving out free things is a problem for management because it does not look good on paper. Issues arise because the framing of the situation is not correct: employees are not wasting company money, they are using the advertising budget. Whole Foods allows employees some space to give free items to customers because they know it brings the customers back.
In a commercialized retail world, interactions at stores can feel mundane and inhuman. Every company talks about the importance of great customer service but few know how to translate that into a tangible reality. Great customer service is not smiling and being pleasant, it is being human. It is when employees have the autonomy to be themselves and management puts enough trust in them to not abuse it, that people generally have the best customer service interactions. My group of friends and I valued our BJ’s waitress because we got to be human with her and she was with us – there was no facade, we were like friends.
The next management problem is: how do you train employees to have this autonomy and humanness? You can’t. This is another framing problem to which I ask, does training cookie-cutter retail employees create value for the customer? Let’s rethink training for a minute. If we think of what might make a small, local store successful, large corporate training programs are not part of the list. So maybe the goal of a training program should be to break people into the idea that they are empowered to make decisions about what is right during the course of their work (and management has to be trained to deal with this ambiguity successfully). It reminds me somewhat of the Reed College Honor Principle. It can be messy but it works and it creates value by adding humanness, which will only grow to be a more important differentiator as time goes on.