Instilling behaviors for great customer service across generations

Successful customer service draws on your vision for your independent garden center, effective training, and healthy doses of business etiquette and modern manners.


Spring countdowns are filled with excitement and unknowns, especially with seasonal staff returning to the workforce or entering for the first time. Customer service training is too critical to leave to chance, but diversity in employee ages and experience can leave you wondering where to start. With generational awareness, common courtesy, and a clear vision at the top of the list, your staff will be ready to serve.

Acknowledging generational differences

Just as understanding generational differences gives employees an edge in meeting customer needs, recognizing generational differences in your staff — especially with younger employees — improves the training process and boosts results. This doesn’t mean Millennials and younger hires need separate programs, but trainers can benefit from acknowledging differences — even if they fall in those age groups themselves.

Bob Negen

Generational marketing expert Ann Fishman, author of “Marketing to the Millennial Woman,” believes younger employees need training that previous generations did not. Accustomed to digital communication, younger employees may not pick up on body language or facial and verbal cues that seem obvious to others. “Millennial employees must be trained from day one,” Fishman says. “Train them in the things you take for granted.”

A lack of body-language insight extends to not understanding the messages their own body cues send. Business etiquette expert Lydia Ramsey, author of “Manners That Sell,” notes that younger employees may fail to make eye contact or smile, not realizing customers perceive them as disinterested. “They’re not rude on purpose,” Ramsey says. “No one explained the little things of courtesy and respect. They haven’t been trained at home or in school.”

Ann Fishman

Retail expert Bob Negen, creator of the Retail Sales Academy, emphasizes that effective training helps employees of all ages buy in. Share your core values and mission. “Communicate how your employees are enriching other people’s lives through their customer service,” Negen says. Explaining the “whys” deepens buy-in.

Training for first impressions
Lydia Ramsey

First impressions of your business start before customers hit the doors. Prepare your staff to handle phone calls as well as in-person visits. Fishman reports that many business owners complain that Millennials avoid handling phone calls. It’s not a matter of insubordination, but inexperience in a generation where text messages prevail. She suggests training through practice calls to higher-ups.

Ramsey sees training in business phone etiquette and “modern manners” as essential to success. “Manners evolve, but never go out of style,” Ramsey says. Most long-standing rules for acceptable behavior and business courtesy still apply. Ramsey identifies these keys to business phone etiquette:

1. Answer correctly. Identify the business and yourself by name. Ramsey suggests not asking how you can help. “Let your name be last. It is more memorable,” she says.

2. Write down customer names immediately. Then call customers by name during the call. Customers will feel as though they’re getting special attention.

3. Never use first names without permission.

Stick with Mr. or Ms. and the customer’s last name. Using first names can be considered offensive and disrespectful, so ask permission first. “Give them the option. You can never go wrong,” Ramsey explains.

4. Never answer calls while chewing gum or eating. It sends a message that the call is less important. Avoid multi-tasking. “Focus on the customer. They feel your distraction, even over the phone,” Ramsey says.

5. Ask for permission before you transfer a call — and wait to get it. Make sure the caller gets a live person at the other end. Practice transfers so calls don’t get dropped.

For in-person etiquette, Ramsey recommends greeting customers immediately — by name, if possible — and holding doors open. Train employees to acknowledge a customer’s presence, even when helping someone else. Keep personal cellphones out of sight and mind, and stay tuned into the customer’s experience. Understand what they’re going through, and step in to help.

Train employees to take notes during phone calls, writing down the person’s name and asking what the customer prefers to be called — Mr., Ms., or by first name.
Covering all your customer service bases

While generations have distinct characteristics, Negen stresses that effective customer service training rests on communicating your vision and expectations to employees, regardless of age. “It’s getting people to buy into your vision for your customer experience and service,” Negen says. When you do that, all generations are covered. He recommends the following steps to get you there:

1. Define your vision. Unique to every owner, this lays out the experience you personally want your customers to have. “Get specific: This is how we will greet our customer. This is how we will help our customer. This is the experience we will create,” Negen says.

2. Create standards that support your vision, and communicate them clearly. Go beyond responsibilities. “You must speak in the language of behaviors,” Negen explains. “‘Wash the windows’ is a responsibility. ‘Wash the windows to each corner, check for streaks, use X-brand cleaner, wipe up any drips, and put all equipment back in place’ conveys standards.”

3. Create a manual. Take what’s in your head and put it on paper, so your staff knows how to deliver the customer experience you want. “Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress,” says Negen. If you’re pressed for time, do what you can to get started.

4. Create short videos that mirror your training manual. Chunk your manual into three- to five-minute segments, and speak to employees as though you were one-on-one. Use simple video production, and post the videos on a private YouTube channel. If you don’t know how to set one up, Negen recommends asking young employees.

5. Create systems of accountability. End each video segment with a test question, and require employees to answer. Have them report to a manager or reply to an email address. Keep a checklist, so you know everyone watched the video and understood your expectation.

Use technology to complement in-person training, not replace it. “In-person training is still the most effective, but videos help prevent untrained and undertrained employees,” Negen says. Put together short videos highlighting major product categories, new products or upcoming events. Then send out emails with a link to the video, and let employees know there’s a new one to watch.

Getting it right from start to finish

Training customer service standouts is part of a bigger picture. Negen emphasizes sales training as part of the customer service process. “Selling is a skill, and selling is a service,” he explains. Teach employees to engage customers, ask good questions, anticipate needs, and make add-ons when appropriate, so the customer makes the “perfect purchase” — everything they need to succeed. Without that final piece, customer service is lacking.

Negen also encourages IGC owners to invest in the hiring process. Take your time. Recruit and interview skillfully, so you find the right people from the start. “Hire good people — kind, helpful, good-hearted people,” says Negen. “Otherwise, all the training in the world won’t matter.”

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional. She lives, writes and gardens in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.

February 2016
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