Service, motivation and collaboration

The other day my wife was out shopping with our three year-old daughter and popped into our local high street  branch of a large national grocer retailer.

When she came to pay, she noticed that alongside the usual array of sweets and chocolate bars by the checkouts, was quite an extensive range of painkillers and other medicines.

All over-the-counter products, but all on display at the perfect height for a three year-old to mess with.

Now, anyone who’s been shopping with a young child knows what it’s like: the moment you take your eyes off them they’ve either disappeared off down the aisles or they’ve levered open a jar of something-or-other for quick snack.

And when the time comes to pay and you’re distracted trying to find your loyalty card, dig out the right cash, or key in your pin number, that’s the perfect time for them to get up to mischief.

All this considered my wife thought stocking medicines so low down in a part of the story where young children could get their hands on them was a dubious idea.

So she decided to raise it with one of the store staff.

The response she got was a blank face, a shrug and “it comes down from Head Office.”

She mentioned it to a couple of her friends with children the same age and they’d noticed the same thing.

So when she next visited the store she asked to speak to the manager.

The response she got this time was pretty much the same as before: a shrug and “well, yeah, it comes down from Head Office, so that’s where we have to display them.”

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

To be clear, my wife wasn’t expecting the store to remove the products from sale or change its stock lay out there and then.

All she wanted was to know that her comment was being taken seriously and would be followed-up with some kind of response.

I’ve not named the shop in this case because I think it would be unfair to and, call me cynical, but I suspect that you could walk into one of a number of large store chains and have a similar experience.

Some of the most successful and truly innovative grocery retailers in the world are borne out of the UK, leading the way in everything from supply and logistics to customer insight and intelligence.

But as they’ve grown – as with any business – the lines of communication within the organisation have been stretched and the ability of the people at the front line of customer service to deliver on the promise of the brand, weakened.

They feel distant from the heart of the organisation and somewhat disconnected from the brand.

I suspect some of this was at play in my wife’s experience.

I could say that the answer is technology, and to some extent it is – collaboration platforms can allow workers to connect with the wider business, be recognised and rewarded, and appreciate that their actions and contributions make a difference.

But arguably more important is the cultural and structural change that encourage workers to adopt new behaviours and recognise the possibilities in doing so.

In their management classic, “In Search of Excellence”, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman note that change happens when “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”.

The reciprocal benefits of collaboration. People at all levels brought closer together and distances reduced.

The retail environment is increasingly competitive and customer service is a key differentiator for brands wanting to build competitive advantage.

From internal collaboration to external customer engagement – and systems that bridge the two – there’s some truly exciting work taking place across all kinds of businesses.

I look forward to seeing more of it coming to fruition in store – for my benefit and for the guys on the shop floor.

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