The grocery store clerk had better things to do than serve me.
Her coworkers were gathered around the next checkout stand over. And while she scanned my items and made sure I paid, she carried on a conversation with them about next week’s schedule, who had what hours, with exclamations of “wow” and “really”.
I was pretty good with this since it was a slow night at the store though I wished the clerk had maybe greeted me and asked for payment. But when she turned her back on me to talk to the other clerks I knew I didn’t matter. Awaiting my receipt, it got even worse when she tore it off the printer, and with her back still to me and fully conversing with her associates, she reached her arm back behind her to hand it to me. Never said a word. Never even looked at me.
I wasn’t first. Or second, third or fourth. I was dead last in the hierarchy of this clerk’s world.
Thinking it was just me (as I tend to have less patience for these things the older I get) my outrage was validated this week by a much younger group in a “Customers Served! The Impact of Your Performance” workshop. Our focus is on taking practical steps toward excellence in serving customers, and as I played out this belittling scenario with one of them in front of the team, the others actually gasp in amazement as I demonstrated how the clerk handed me the receipt.
That gasp prompted me to fast forward to my “Hierarchy of Action” graphic on one of the slides I customized for this organization. Though it feels like it shouldn’t even need to be discussed, I created the map to help people prioritize their role in business.
We all know the customer’s wants are first, right? I say “wants” because they can be stronger than needs—we are motivated in getting what we want, assuming our basic needs to survive are met.
The hierarchy moves from the customer first, on top, through company wants, division, group and down to individual worker wants at the bottom. Yes, in any customer service scenario, individual wants are on the bottom.
Why is there a need to highlight this? Because of what happened to me in the grocery store. For some reason, this clerk thought that they were first in that engagement. According to the workshop participants, it happens frequently and has probably happened to you, where, by the way you’re treated, find yourself at the bottom of the pile.
The interesting dynamic is what happens to the Actor–the individual, authentic communicator playing their role in the organization–when their authority is challenged or they don’t know what to do. The Actor is actually empowered by the wants (objectives if you like) of their group, their division, the overall company and associated leadership, and of course by what the customer wants. When justifying their Action with a customer, especially in a difficult situation, they are fortified by the polices, procedures and ultimate mission of the company with which they work. In short, the company has their backs.
On the other side, the Audience, in this case the customer, is more empowered as they move closer to an individual Actor who can help them get what they want.
Consider a situation where a customer is dissatisfied and pushes to get to someone in a company who can help. I recall several times when I’ve needed help from a company and continue to pursue individuals, even by calling the company many times to find someone who can actually help me. It’s then that I write down the name of that helpful associate because I will try to return to them if I have trouble again. So will your customers. Your company isn’t helpful in this scene. The individual Actor in your organization is.
Though a customer may feel good about being with a particular company from an overall brand perspective, the real power of any brand comes from the people who live it out. Customers might think getting the attention of managers, at increasing levels of title and responsibility may help them with their wants, but in reality they find it’s the individual, at any level, who steps up to own the customer engagement that really satisfies.
“I own the customer problem until it’s resolved,” said one workshop participant during our discussion. She delivered her credo with an empowering confidence and with determined energy.
It’s not for her this reminder is intended—she gets it. It’s for those who forget, for whatever reason that they aren’t first in the Hierarchy of Action, at least if they have any sense of wanting customers to come back. It’s for those who turn their backs on customers and make them feel like they don’t matter.
Your stage. Your performance. And with the Hierarchy of Action in mind, you’re on!