My wife and I recently paid a visit to the new Whole Foods in Stamford, Connecticut. In the time it took us to walk from one end of the store to the other, I made three new friends.
Each was a Whole Foods employee who began our interaction with “Can I help you, sir?” and end up sharing a little story about themselves, the new store, or how much they liked my jacket. I was feeling like Major Grumpy-Pants at the time, yet I was charmed and disarmed.
If it happens once, that’s an accident. If it happens three times in the space of 5 minutes, you know it’s policy. Whole Foods is hiring gregarious people.
How much friendliness the employee gives off is the employee’s choice. Some companies have a minimum standard. They don’t want snooty, obnoxious, or eccentric. (They don’t want that superbly dingy cashier lady played by Kristen Wigg on SNL.) If the employee can deliver pleasant and agreeable, or facsimiles thereof, that’s fine.
Some companies — like, apparently, the Stamford Whole Foods — ask for much more. Zazzle asks employees to deliver shouts of joy at the approach of guests. I walked by Best Buy in New York City where all the staff were doing some sort of affect-building exercise on the sidewalk. Greeters at Wal-Mart are supposed to be forthcoming. Disney is famous for big emotions.
But there are problems. One of them is the American conviction that your emotions are your own personal business. Generally, we believe emotions are a private matter and that it is wrong to ask the employee to use them for public, commercial purposes.
And then there’s the problem of evident insincerity. No one believes the truculent server who promises to be our friend for the duration of a meal. Does it add value to the occasion? Well, perhaps as low comedy, but not otherwise. There is something manifestly unconvincing about the airline staffer who recites, “Buh-bye! Buh-bye! Buh-bye!” as we leave the plane.
Finally, there is a mechanical problem. Greetings are little gifts, and when we force people to be friendly, they are no longer making a gift. No social value is being created. The problem is not insincerity but a paradox. A forced gift isn’t a gift.
The best way around this may be to hire people who are naturally friendly. And surely this wouldn’t be very difficult. It’s not hard to spot a social soul. But are there enough of them? Especially now that Whole Foods, Zappos, and Disney have gone on a hiring spree? What happens when we run out of nice people?
There just has to be a growing accumulation of the socially inept and the downright rude. Think of all those back offices filled with grouchy people. Thank God for back rooms and locked doors.
Clearly, we are going to have to go beyond just selecting for cheerfulness and start training it. We may also have to start paying for it.
Let’s see what we can learn from Dolores. Dolores is the reason a 7-Eleven in Shirley, N.Y., sells more coffee than any other store in the system. She was featured recently in an episode ofUndercover Boss. Have a look at this excerpt to see Dolores in action. (Feel free to skip ahead to the 1:10 minute mark.)
Dolores is no mere greeter. She’s there to make the coffee flow. And after 18 years here, she knows a lot of people by name. And if she doesn’t know your name, she is prepared to go with an endearment. (And who doesn’t want to be called “hon”?) Most astonishingly, she punches people. And she’s not asking for permission either. “I gotta hit ya,” we hear her say, “You know I gotta hit ya.”
Hitting customers. Now there’s a big idea.
I believe Dolores shows us that our conventional instincts are wrong. We offer the customer a glassy, scripted welcome. We craft our greetings as if the staff person were a butler, all frosty detachment and sangfroid. “Good afternoon, sir, may I help you find something?” There are options here. In some cases, it’s actually okay to hit the customer.
The customer is no robot. Standard greetings are just so very boring. To be sure, we don’t want to be intrusive or presumptuous. We are all Major Grumpy-Pants some of the time and when that’s the case we just want to be left alone. It’s also true that respect must be shown, and distance honored.
Human beings, most of them, come into the world with a good ear for things social. We’re wired to be convivial. (Imagine having a chance of contributing to the gene pool if we were not.) Wiring aside, we are rewarded for good interactions and punished for bad ones.
People with a really good ear for social interaction are probably 20% of the population. With the right hiring and training, we can probably double that number. And now in the place of that sullen teenager who avoids eye contact, we have retail staff fantastically good at reading people and responding to them in real time. 7-Eleven sells 1 million cups of coffee a day. Imagine what that number would be if they had a Dolores in every store.
When we turn our service staff into automata, we squander a great opportunity.