How to Hire Hourly Team Members part 10… The Only Question You Need for Customer Service
So… we want only the best customer service from our hourly team members, right? Well, at least you want them to provide your stated level of service. The key is in the hiring as usual (and then in the training, rewarding, and celebrating). How then do we hire people who have that level of service as their own personal goals?
I made up a question that is known at Whole Foods, by anyone who ever worked with me or for me, as “the ketchup question”. It’s been a key hiring question for me for many years. If I cannot get an applicant to at least come around to my way of thinking while discussing their answer to this question I will not hire them. It doesn’t matter what other qualifications they have… If I state that a very high level of customer service is mandatory, then I cannot hire people for whom this level of service is not a personal goal. We’ve already established that we don’t have the time or inclination to follow our team members around making sure they are living up to our customer service expectations, so they have to do it because it’s their natural state of being.
So, here’s the ‘ketchup question’ in all it’s glory. Well, not really all it’s glory… some of the glory is in how it is asked. Hmmm… perhaps I’ll make a video on how to ask it the right way. For now…
So I’m going to ask you a question that I ask of every applicant. It’s a long drawn out question, so bear with me.
Let’s say you had an uncle (or Aunt) Mortimer. He was 4 or 5 times removed, whatever that means, and you didn’t know him. He knew you though… you were his favorite niece/nephew… he watched you as you grew up, not in a creepy weird way, just as an uncle might. (And yes, I ask it just as it’s written, and if it’s asked right it gets the applicant laughing, relaxed, and playing along)
So about 30 years ago, Uncle Archie and his wife Edith (yes I know) started this little corner grocery store, just a small space packed with whatever they could fit. 30 years of hard work later, they end up with a store as big as (whatever nice big grocery store you and your applicant will be familiar with)… doing pretty well for themselves!
Now it’s time for them to retire and move to a house on the beach on St. Thomas (again, just where is unimportant, someplace nice). However because they worked so hard they don’t need to sell the store… they want to give it to you! Yup. All yours!
The only thing is… they’re not sure you know the value of a dollar like they learned working hard all those years, so they’re making you sign a contract that states you will work in the store for 20 years before you can sell it or anything. You actually have to work in it… learn to do most every job, and get to know the customers. You don’t have to work like a dog… you just have to be a working part of the store. You’ll have lots of people working for you, you’ll get paid well, and get lot’s of vacation time, and after 20 years you can sell it, or pass it on to someone else, whatever you want.
So… of course, you meet with the lawyer and sign on the dotted line… I told you it was a long question did I? The store is all yours! Uncle Wilt and Aunt Chamberlain also left enough money to change the sign, so now it says “insert applicant’s first name here’s” store. It’s yours!
Well here we are on your first day of work. You show up, put on an apron, and take a walk to introduce yourself around the store. You check out the people stacking your apples, cutting and selling your meat, scooping your potato salad… you stop in the cash office and watch people counting your money… oh yeah.
Next you find yourself behind the customer service desk with a couple of your team members, when one leaves to show someone to the restroom, and another walks a lost child back to the parent. You are up there alone. On your fist day. (this next part is very important, and I end up repeating it several times to be sure the applicant understands) All you know is that it’s your store! You own it! You can do whatever you want. What you say IS policy! You can make up any rules and do anything you want! (again, I will repeat this to be sure they know that they are not restricted by any rules they might have encountered at any other time in their lives… they can make whatever choice seems right to them)
So I come in, I’m a customer now, and I have a bottle of ketchup in my hand. Not the big bottle, just the small bottle of ketchup, and it’s almost empty (I’ll use my hands and anything that might be nearby to show that it’s a small bottle, and there is only about an inch of ketchup left in it). I slap it (or my hand) down on the table and say “hey”, and I look at your apron and nametag, so you obviously work here… “I bought this here at your store yesterday, and my kids didn’t really like it… I’d like my money back!” (Then I look the applicant in the eye with my best poker face and say) “So… what are you going to do”? “Remember it’s your store… you can do whatever you want”.
All of this was to determine the applicant’s default level of customer service. If a high level of customer service is really important to me I have to know that they will provide a high level of customer service on their own, whether I’m around or not.
There are a few possible outcomes:
They say they’ll give the money back, perhaps adding some information gathering to track the customer’s returns and stop them at some future point.
They won’t give the money back however they will replace the ketchup with another brand. The customer is probably taking advantage of me, however THIS TIME I’ll replace the ketchup… this time only.
They say too bad… I’m not giving the money back or replacing the ketchup with another brand. This customer will not be taking advantage of me!
They are completely stymied by the question and have no idea what to do.
Some applicants will ask if there was anything wrong with the ketchup. I’ll answer no… the kids just didn’t like it. I have found that most people are willing to replace a defective product without hesitation. I want to know what they will do to make the customer happy just because the customer didn’t like the product.
Many applicants will question why I used the whole bottle if we didn’t like it!? I will follow up that question by reminding them that it’s the small bottle, and that (just to keep them in the scene) I’m a stay at home day, my wife makes good money, and we’ve got 4 little kids. I do all of my shopping here… you must be new because they all know me here… now we can afford a little more, so I thought I’d try this organic ketchup that you sell. So I cooked up a bag of the French fries from your frozen section and put them on all 6 plates. We all put a pile of ketchup on our plates, after all, it’s ketchup right? Ketchup is ketchup! Ketchup on 6 plates is almost a whole bottle as you can see. So the kids try it and say “Eeewwww! Dad!?? What is this? We’re not eating this!” So here I am, with kids waiting in the car, and… can I just have my money back quick? I have no cash and I have to go over the bridge to drop off one of the kids. I’ll be in Thursday for my regular shopping and we can talk all about the other ketchup you offer then.
Well… For the applicant who stated they would return the customer’s money, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear! In fact, I’d be happiest if they would give the money back AND give them another bottle of ketchup. I think we are all pretty much the same in that we are thrilled when we get more than we bargained for… especially when we get something for free! People who get something free, something extra will without a doubt tell someone about it. Even if it’s just a small thing… “Hey, guess what I got today??”… “A free bottle of ketchup!” “Yup… “ I would bet that you have heard a friend or significant other tell you about some free thing they got… maybe a free coffee, or someone working in a store gave one of the kids something for free, and you heard all about it, didn’t you!? Maybe it was you doing the telling? Either way, we love to get something extra, so why not make the customer’s day, exceed their expectations, and give them a free bottle of ketchup. You only paid about ½ the retail for it, so you’re out what… $1.50? $2.00? How else can you spend $2 and get someone telling his or her friends about your store? A worthwhile investment I’d say!
But Steve sez you… what if the applicant is just telling us what they think we want to hear? No problem sez I. No matter what the applicant says they will do, I question it. They want to return the $? I ask them if they realize how many people are trying to take advantage of us? How long do they think they’ll stay in business setting a precedent like that? Aren’t you afraid the customer will go and tell all of their friends and neighbors to empty out their cupboards and take it all back “applicant’s name’s” store. He’ll take anything back! If this job is for a customer service role, and the applicant (who has made it this far in the questioning) sticks to their guns and will still give the money back, even after my argument that they probably shouldn’t, I’ll will hire them! I can leave them alone and know that they will live up to my customer service expectations.
But Steve sez you… “If I hire this person they will give away the store”. I can hear you now… “But here in (name the place) we DO have too many people trying to take advantage of us”! “I don’t want my workers giving away things…” No problem sez I. Any applicant who has already passed the gauntlet of questions we’ve already asked, and then is willing to stand up to you, even after hearing you hint that perhaps they shouldn’t have such high standards, will certainly follow whatever rules you set for them. They will easily follow a lower standard than their default. The problem is that I’ve found it takes way more training than I have time for, and almost constant follow up to get people to follow a higher standard than their default, and still their default level (the lower level of service) will often be the service they deliver. So they won’t even be meeting your middle level of service. And at the risk of an angry email, I would suggest that if you are really worried about this your focus is not on customer service anyway… just hire whoever you want and be done with it ; )
Next we have the applicants who were not willing to return the money, but would give the customers another bottle of ketchup. Now our first job is to determine whether the applicant really understands that they do not have to follow any of the rules they have experienced in their lives; that they can do whatever they want. I will ask them why they won’t return the money, and much of the time they will state that it’s a rule or policy, and they just can’t do that, or they will insist that they will try to find someone who has worked there a while and see what they think. We’ve been trained to follow the rules from a very young age. Anyone with kids that are in, or have been through grade school knows this… following the rules is a large part of how kids are judged in school, and this brainwashing follows us into our adult lives.
One way to handle this is to then rewrite the scene with the applicant, and have them start their own store, so they know there are no existing rules to follow… they get to set up whatever rules they see fit. Will they then want to keep the customer happy and give them back their $3? This whole thing harkens back to how the applicant sees the world. Is everyone trying to take advantage of me? Or… should most people be trusted, at least until they do something to change that?
If we can convince the applicant that they get to make the rules and they decide that they will return the money we’re good to go.
If they still won’t return the money I have done 2 things, and settled on the second one. For a while I would simply thank them for coming in and move on. At some point the application pool started to dry up, and the number of applicants who made it this far in the questioning was too low to maintain our staffing levels. So… let’s see if we can do a little more work to convince applicants who’ve made it this far AND who are on the fence, to see the value in giving the money back. This tactic is best used for applicants that I believe would like to return the money, however they’ve never experienced service like this before and it seems too far out to them. For applicants who firmly believe that their decision to not return the money is the right one… I still thank them for coming in and move on.
If we are going to try to get the applicant to understand why they return the $3 we have to get them to understand a little about business and think in the long term. We don’t just want the customer’s money today… we want them to shop here next week, next year, for as long as they live close enough to shop here. So, I’ll ask the applicant if this $3 is worth losing a customer’s business for ever? If the answer is yes, thank them for coming in and move on.
If the answer is “no, of course not, but…” then we have to find out “but… WHAT?” Why would we risk losing their business for $3? Remember, we don’t want to punish the 97% for the possible actions of the 3%.
YES… this process is long and involved. And… do you want to end up with team members you can trust to extend your expected level of customer service? Or do you want to have to constantly follow up after them, often finding that the cost of repairing their mistakes more costly than simply making it right the first time around by returning the $3? I thought so…
Back to work.
We are trying to find out why this applicant, who up to this point has otherwise passed all of our tests, is not wanting to give the customer their $3 back. They understand why we don’t want to lose their business, so the only other reasons I’ve found are:
They still find it very hard to go against some ‘rule’ or ‘policy’ that was drilled into them some time ago… these people we can work with, and so I will move on with them.
Or, they see the world as a place where they cannot, will not be taken advantage of. Thank them for coming in and move on. I have not had any success in getting a person with this mindset to live up to my expectations for customer service. They simply do not get it and should not be working in customer serive.
Our last possible outcome is the when the applicant states they will not return the money or offer a replacement bottle of ketchup. You should know the answer to this by now. That’s right… Thank them for coming in and move on.
But Steve… what if they are just telling you what they think you want to hear you ask? Well I say… no one with a high enough default level of customer service would ever choose that option (at least that’s my belief). Nor would I want to hire (and neither should you) someone who thought one thing was the right thing to do, and offered to do the wrong thing just to get an hourly job. I do not want someone who would sell their soul for $10/hour or so on my team.
A team is only as good as it’s worst player. I want my worst player to be much better than the average player on the other team!
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