It’s no longer uncommon to walk into a convenience store to pay for gas and other items and never hear a word — or a thank you — from the cashier. It’s also surprisingly common to find cashiers in retail stores chatting non-stop on a cell phone or watching TV, seemingly oblivious to customers. And that’s when you can find them.
Because of the influx of evacuees relocating to Hattiesburg from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans areas following Hurricane Katrina, restaurants and retailers along U.S. 98 have had an especially difficult time finding qualified front-line workers and training them properly on good customer service skills.
“Finding enough people was an extreme problem in the early months after the hurricane and especially at the first of the year, but we try very hard not to sacrifice integrity based on hiring limitations,” said Jim Thompson, operating partner for Seasons restaurant in Hattiesburg, recently named Mississippi Magazine’s Best New Restaurant. “We slipped a little bit, just like everybody else did. To get ourselves out of that hole, we set higher standards and released people who weren’t up to those standards. We’re rebounding nicely, and we’re not having a staffing issue like others on the strip. We’re making changes to make things better and I’ll do whatever it takes to make it right.”
Gay Saxon, director of training for Eagle Ridge Conference and Training Center in Raymond, said small mom-and-pop operations usually have the most difficulty hiring employees because they can’t compete with larger companies’ pay and benefits. They often provide on-the-job training with no set guidelines to follow.
“Employees in larger organizations typically go through customer service skill training before they hit the floor,” said Saxon, who worked in retail for 15 years before joining Eagle Ridge six years ago. “A small business owner might say something like, ‘just come on in and I’ll show you …’ But what usually happens is there’s a day or two of training without all aspects of customer service being addressed. Then a customer comes in with an exchange or return when the new employee is working alone. Right off, they’re providing poor service and, as a customer, you know how aggravating it is to go somewhere where the salespeople don’t know what they’re doing.”
Technology has facilitated the movement away from personalized customer service “because one-one-one attention means a company has to take more time to make that dollar,” said Saxon.
“You go into Sears and there’s a central checkout with nobody to help you in any of the departments,” she said. “They may think it’s a more efficient operation, but if you’re not giving me service, I’m not going to bring my dollar back.”
Surveys show that dissatisfied customers tell 10 people about receiving poor service. Satisfied customers only tell approximately half that number.
“I love Wal-Mart because of the greeter,” said Saxon. “First impressions are lasting, and it’s nice to have someone meet you at the door with a smile, saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ When you go in stores at Highland Village, you can bet somebody is going to speak to you. But many businesses large and small are forgetting that.”
Eagle Ridge, one of the few educational institutions in the state that provides customized customer service training for Mississippi businesses, offers a basic program centered on personal communication.
“We teach people how to listen to what customers have to say, respond to their needs, provide and communicate benefits of a product to a customer, answer their questions, and bottom line, follow up,” said Saxon. “If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Keep your commitments to those customers.”
Unfortunately, Saxon said, employers operating on slim profit margins often view training as the first budget item to cut.
“But if you’re not training people right, business is going to suffer, so that’s not a wise budget cut,” she said.
In a competitive environment, employees simply must provide outstanding customer service, Saxon emphasized.
“It can’t be just good,” she said. “Look at successful businesses and see what they’re doing. Nordstrom’s, for example, will do absolutely everything imaginable to satisfy a customer.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.