Editor's column: They ain't misbehavin' Featured

10:47am EDT October 23, 2001

People skills are hard to teach employees. Yet how well employees read customers and interact with them leaves a lasting impression.

You might think the best insurance against poor customer relations would be to hire chatty, bubbly employees to staff your front line. They'll come across as friendly and interested.

Not necessarily. You still have to train them so they know when to turn on the charm and when to keep their heads down and simply do their jobs.

Not long ago I went shopping at a new supermarket to see how it compared to the store where I usually buy groceries. It was late, and I only had a few items to pick up, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity to make a quick run through the place -- which also happened to be closer to my house than the grocery I typically patronized.

I expected to spend a few extra minutes navigating my way through the unfamiliar store layout to find what I needed. What I didn't expect was to spend nearly 25 minutes at the check-out when I was the only customer in line and had fewer than 12 items in my basket.

The clerk apparently didn't notice I was in a hurry -- despite the fact that I had my credit card out and ready the moment she started scanning my purchases. She wanted to talk. And talk she did.

So much so that she actually stopped scanning to show me the subject of her incessant rant: an article she'd been reading in Rolling Stone magazine.

As the clerk droned on, I began to wonder whether her boss considered her a good worker. She was careful to bag my pears separately from my canned goods, so as not to bruise them. She handed me my Tic-Tacs after scanning them rather than tossing them in the bottom of a bag for me to dig out on the way home. She smiled a lot. She was well groomed and upbeat.

Yet her inability to recognize that I was tired and in a hurry -- or that her chosen topic of conversation was one I cared nothing about -- was annoying enough to overshadow all that. She was wasting my time. And I value that more than carefully handled fruit.

This situation could have been avoided had the clerk been trained to be more aware of and sensitive to customer moods. The cues are usually there. She just needed to be taught how to read them.

While some customers will readily speak up if an employee is aggravating them, others will take a more passive approach in expressing their feelings. Both, however, will leave upset -- and that's never good for business. Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.