Low-Cost Service Tips for High-Stress Times

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine

In part one of a three-part series, we learn about rules for greeting guests (and, yes, there are rules) and boosting the service skills of long-term employees.

In light of the tough economic times, great service is an even more compelling area for focus than usual. I doubt any of us can afford to risk losing customers right now, nor do we want to give up the chance to bring in as many new ones as we can. Therefore, here are basic but useful, low-cost but highly effective service strategies that we put into practice at Zingerman’s. Some I’ve talked about before in past columns, but they bear repeating or elaborating on now as we strive to serve customers well and compete for their dollars.

1.) Make Your Customers Feel Welcome 

Our expectation is that everyone who works here meets and greets every guest just as we would if they came into our home.

On the way in: When customers get within ten feet of us, we make eye contact and smile; at four feet, we verbally greet them. When it’s used well, the 10/4 Rule helps create a positive welcoming environment, one in which the best people want to work and/or shop. (You can, of course, alter the distances to fit your own space.)

In practice, the 10/4 Rule helps to avoid big service problems. You know that scenario where a guest goes without being greeted despite the fact that there are four or five service providers nearby? It’s a horrible situation where each of us assumes that the other has taken care of the customer, but in truth none of us has. Using the 10/4 Rule not only keeps this from happening but it also increases the positive energy for customers and co-workers alike. If you want to improve the quality of your workplace, start by looking people in the eye, smiling and saying “Hi!” Cost is low and the benefit is high, so give it a try.

Throughout the store: Remember, there is no cap on how many of us can—and should—implement the 10/4 Rule with a single customer. Initially, this concept can seem counterintuitive to many newcomers on staff. They think that because they’re not the one directly waiting on a customer, they should avoid talking to, making eye contact with, or in any other way distracting from the work that one of their colleagues is already doing.

In truth, everyone who gets within ten feet of a customer should be making eye contact, and at four feet, offering a greeting. Sure, it adds up to a lot of hellos but it’s the polite, and profitable, thing to do. Walking by a guest is rude, sends a negative message and leads to missed connections with customers and a rather impersonal overall service experience.

On the way out: Even experienced service staff who live the 10/4 Rule when a guest is on the way in often forget that the same rule still applies when the customer is headed towards the door. If we don’t do that, we miss a free opportunity to have customers leave feeling like we cared about them. Or, we might miss our last chance to discover that something we did during their visit unintentionally alienated them. Over the years, we’ve experienced hundreds of “moments of truth” simply because a staff member near the door interacted with the guest as they were leaving, and then, either through direct customer comments or through reading body language and tone of voice, were able to identify a problem and take last-minute action before we lost that customer for life.

All the time: When you’re working in any area of the store where customers are likely to need help, try to stand in a way that makes it easy for you to see the customers. Try to turn sideways rather than have your back to where the customers might appear. Of course this is not always possible, which is why some stores use back counter mirrors to help.

2.) Actively Engage the Customer

Our goal is to spend time with each customer rather than (as happens in most service settings) finish with a guest as quickly as they’ll let us. The more time we spend with customers, either on the phone or in person, the more likely we are to understand what their needs are. Frequently, there are services we can provide that they don’t know are available such as home delivery, custom dishes that meet their dietary requirements and so on. The key is that most of this involves serving their needs in ways we’d never have known about if we hadn’t spent that extra minute talking and listening.

3.) Guide Customers—Don’t Just Give Directions 

When a guest asks where something is in the store, we actually walk him there instead of simply pointing him in the right direction. It’s more polite and more expedient. If we didn’t do this, the customer could get lost or confused en route, which adds stress and inevitably diminishes the quality of his experience. Plus, if we’re doing our job well, the time we’re walking together allows another minute or two to engage and find out more about how we can help serve the guest effectively.

4.) Give Guests Something Extra

It may be as simple as helping a customer carry a heavy bag to the car, offering a taste of a new dessert or rushing to open a door. On a wholesale level, it could be anything from sending a thank-you note to dropping an unexpected t-shirt into a box with the rest of the order to show our appreciation. These are small things but we’ve found that guests tell their friends about them for years. As a matter of fact, going the extra mile is so much a part of our service culture here, that we’ve made a verb out of it. It’s pretty standard to hear someone say, “I extra miled the customer over there by bringing them…”

We recognize extra mile stories every month in our staff newsletter and this past January, to overcome the inevitable doldrums of the post-holiday season, we ran a game to see how many extra miles we could record and recognize. We wound up with more than ten times as many written stories being submitted by staff members than usual. That’s a lot of good work to make satisfied customers all the happier about their choice to spend their limited funds and time with us rather than our competition.

5.) Take Time for a Service Tune Up

We focus so much time on training new staff that it is easy to forget that it has been years since long-term staffers went through service training. While they’re all certainly in sync with the spirit and even most of the specifics of what we teach today, inevitably over time some of the details get lost; many of the improvements that we make to the training each year get missed; fine points get forgotten. So we created a Tune Up incentive system to encourage the old hands—partners, managers and hourly crew alike—who’d been working for more than two years to attend our top service classes during the six weeks before Christmas. Aside from getting paid to attend the classes, we sweetened the service training pot by giving a $20 gift certificate to attend one class and $50 to attend both seminars. To get the gift certificate, they had to fill out a simple form after they took each class that gave all of us some sense of what they’d learned and what they were going to take action on based on that learning. Not everyone who was eligible got “tuned up” but nearly a third (more than 60) of those eligible attended.

The Tune Up really did work; honestly, even I was surprised by the enthusiasm the service teaching sparked amongst the “old timers.”  People didn’t just go to the classes, they were excited to go. I’d say almost every single one I talked to afterwards seemed engaged and into the learning that they gained, and have been talking regularly since about ways that they’ve put the learning to use.

I hope you’ve found these ideas helpful. In the next two articles, I’ll share more low-cost service tips in high-stress times. In the meantime, I’m sure there are simple but meaningful techniques that you’ve used in your organization, and I’d love to hear about them. Please send them my way at ari at zingermans dot com.