Employee Relations and Customer Service: What’s the Connection?

By Laura MacLeod

employeeIf you are a small retail business owner, you may have limited staff and management. Your employees might be a mix of salaried and hourly workers, full and part time, and include family members, students and interns. This group of workers is your greatest asset because they interact directly with your customers. They have the power to make or break that customer relationship; therefore employees can also be a liability. If customer satisfaction and loyalty is your goal, you must first develop employee satisfaction and loyalty. Here’s how:

Structure and Expectations

Employees need a strong structure and clear expectations in order to perform effectively. Structure includes everything from dress code, scheduling procedures for overtime and sick days, and team member communication. Expectations include specific job responsibilities and tasks, time frame for completion and the level of supervision they will be given. A full and detailed explanation of the job provides a secure foundation for employees. Security translates to confidence; they will perform well because they know exactly what is expected.

Accommodating Needs

What do workers need? This is an important question. The answer encompasses job specific needs such as supplies and inventory, but also personal needs such as schedule changes, wage increases, or advancement opportunities. Let’s start with job needs. Encourage employees to ask questions and voice concerns on a daily basis. Accomplish this with a check-in before the shift starts. Alert workers to changes and specific instructions: for example, we’re out of X product- substitute Y, Joe’s out sick today, etc.. Elicit feedback and questions from workers, and make expectations clear. This welcomes and unites employees, and ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Now, on to personal needs. Here you may feel handicapped if you can’t afford to increase wages or provide a comprehensive benefit package. Be honest and straightforward with your workers and brainstorm to find things you can do for them. For example, Jane has decided to go back to school and would like to change or cut back on her workload, while Joe wants to work more, and Mary would like to cross train and be considered for promotion. Consider these adjustments and use the group to help you make it work for your business. Do your best to accommodate these needs. When you simply can’t manage a request, say so and explain why. Workers will respect and value your honesty. Strong communication and authentic interest in worker’s needs goes a long way toward loyalty and commitment to you and the company.

Transparent Customer Service

Effective and professional customer service is not just about smiling and being helpful. Employees need clear information on policies, protocols, and the expectations for enforcing them. For example, a customer insists on a full refund for returning an item several months after the deadline. Is this negotiable? Who decides if exceptions can be made? What if the customer becomes agitated — where is the backup and what actions should employees take? These questions need to be answered clearly and specifically if you expect employees to provide efficient service. Customers are unique and NOT always right. While many are pleasant and reasonable, some are rude and demanding. Work through scenarios with difficult customers; discuss with workers and determine how best to satisfy the customer and keep the interaction respectful. Welcome questions and challenges and provide specific assistance for those times when things go awry. Your employees are on the front lines, and they will need back up. Providing a strong support system goes a long way in fostering loyalty and trust.

These guidelines will help you connect and communicate effectively with your staff. Listen and respond authentically; often that is all that is required. Employees want to be heard and respected, so they feel that what they do matters. Hearing and respecting them promotes strong relationships and trust. Positive attitudes and behaviors from employees create a better customer experience. Everybody wins.