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Lean Drives Focus and Focus Drives Retail Sales

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Lean thinking and Lean work processes drive high levels of employee engagement and, therefore, are exceptionally powerful tools to use to drive high levels of customer service. They do this by greatly increasing the degree to which employees focus, in very positive ways, on the needs of your customers. And when this happens, you've got very satisfied customers and increased sales. This podcast gives an example of a program that really met the twin challenges of getting the full and undivided attention of retail sales associates and changing their behavior in some simple but powerful ways that really build sales.
Every day, hour after hour, in retail stores across the nation, sales are lost because sales associates engage in behaviors that kill sales. And most of these behaviors are engaged in simply because employees are not aware of their impact or, alternatively, feel so disconnected from their place of employment that they don't care if sales are won or lost. Lean thinking and Lean work processes can transform these employees into champions of indelible impressions; the kind of impressions that customers never forget; the kind of impressions that bring these customers back, over and over again, to a place where spending their hard earned money is really a pleasure. This podcast describes a program that drove exceptional customer service because it increased the degree to which tens of thousands of employees focused on really meeting the needs of customers. And when that happened, it drove increased sales. We have training and consulting resources that can dramatically increase the degree to which your retail sales associates really focus in very positive ways on the needs of your customers and, in the process, build sales.
Duration: 15:48 Audio MP3
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As consumers, you and I are confronted daily with dramatic examples of sales-killing behaviors in retail stores. In many cases, the behaviors we encounter hardly get our attention because we've been so accustomed to them. Experiences like one I had just last week are commonplace. I was in the checkout lane of a large supermarket and asked the checker, who was, frankly, looking rather annoyed, "How's it going?" He replied, with a scowl on his face, "Five minutes and I'm out of here." I thought to myself, "I wonder if I should even be in here if this place is this bad." What a contrast to the grocery store my wife, Dolores, and I usually shop in that I've described in the first two podcasts in this series. In this store, the checker would have a smile on her face and say something like, "Good to see you again."

A couple of things stand out in my mind about these two very different ways of reacting to the folks who are paying these employee's salary; that's you and I, the customers.

First, I find it just amazing that the clerk who said, "Five minutes and I'm out of here" saw absolutely nothing inappropriate in saying this to a customer. He was utterly oblivious to the impact this statement would have on whether or not I ever returned to this grocery store. Alternatively, it's quite possible that he didn't care if I ever returned.

Second, I'm continually struck by the simplicity of the change that needs to happen to transform a sales-killing experience, "Five minutes and I'm out of here" into one that is sales-building, "Good to see you again."

Of course, "simple" isn't the same as "easy." Developing a workforce that continually gives your customers indelible impressions of great service is not easy. But experience has taught me that it very definitely can be done. And the payoff is often the difference between staying in business and not making it, especially in today's hyper-competitive marketplace. I strongly believe that Lean thinking and Lean work processes provide the key to driving basic transformations in the quality of retail store encounters. Lean works because it drives focus and it's focus that drives retail sales.

Before looking at some examples of the way in which that quality called "focus" drives exceptional customer service, let's consider the impact of customer service on business success. First, an alarming fact. Behaviors of the "Five minutes and I'm out of here" variety are costing most businesses thousands of lost customers and they're not even aware of it. Second, managers of many retail stores aren't even aware of why their customers aren't returning. After I heard this really pathetic comment coming from this checker, "Five minutes and I'm out of this place", I wondered to myself, is the store manager even aware of the fact that comments like this are being made to his customers and, if he is, is he aware of their impact?

I'm afraid the answer to both of these questions could very well be, "No." It sure shouldn't be. Consider these facts. A study conducted by Bain and Company indicated that each year the average company loses 10 to 15% of its customer base. A Forum Corporation study revealed that 84% of customers who leave do so because of poor service. This Forum study further states that 70% of the reasons customers leave a company has nothing to do with the product.

So some behaviors, like "Five minutes and I'm out of here," that might seem like "no big deal" are, in fact, a very big deal. Why might some managers not see this as a big deal? Well, the checker who wanted to make a fast exit from the store did, after all, check me out very efficiently and bagged the bread, broccoli, and orange juice I had purchased quickly. But all of this process stuff is not what stuck in my mind. What I remembered is "Five minutes and I'm out of here." Getting one's groceries accurately rung up and bagged is the basic price of entry into this marketplace. But they aren't differentiators. They don't create indelible impressions like "Five minutes and I'm out of here" or "Good to see you again" do, on the sales-killing and sales-building ends of the spectrum.

In earlier podcasts in this series, I made what I called an audacious claim. The claim was that changing sales-killing behaviors into sales-building behaviors was simple; that what it took on the part of managers and supervisors was acceptance of the importance of line employees to the success of their company, coupled with a lot of tenacity and patience as they used the tools of Lean thinking to drive this type of change. Simply, stated, managers and supervisors need to believe in the message they're conveying, they need to get the full attention of their employees, and they need to help these employees understand how provide customers with indelible impressions that say, over and over again, to the customers, this is just a great place to be in.

Here's one example of what I was talking about; an example of the power of focus and great communications. About fifteen years ago, I was a member of a team at a major performance improvement company that was challenged by one of its clients to develop a program that would transform some of the basic behaviors of its 35,000 plus retail clerks into behaviors that would build sales. Our experience in designing programs that drove dramatic changes in employee behavior had taught us that two things had to happen if this program was going to achieve the client's goal of increased sales.

First, we knew that the program had to get the attention of the 35,000 plus individuals whose behavior it was intended to change. Second, we knew that we had to provide store managers with highly focused, easy to use training materials that could be used over and over again with employees and that would teach these employees how to provide indelible impressions.

To meet the first challenge, getting the attention of 35,000 retail clerks, we produced an audio tape with country music on one side and rock on the other. Interspersed between the music segments were comments made by a DJ on customer service. The comments he made were simple and humorous. They were all about basic sales-building behaviors, the kind you and I really enjoy; the kind that cause us to come back and buy more. This method of delivering training really worked. Music was the initial draw and resulted in repetitive listening. And the DJ's comments about smiling and saying "thank you" and "good to see you again" helped transform the behavior of these 35,000 retail clerks.

To meet the second challenge, we produced a video tape that modeled the kind of behaviors that create indelible impressions, coupled with an easy to read, illustrated, customer service pamphlet for employees, both of which made it simple for store managers to provide training that reinforced the messages conveyed in the country/rock music audio tape.

Did this program work? Absolutely. It drove increased sales. Why did it work? First, it really grabbed the attention of retail clerks. Second, after getting their attention, it got them to see how important, and easy, it was to please customers. After the program had been in the field for several months, we conducted random surveys of hundreds of retail clerks, asking them what giving good service meant to them. Hundreds responded with comments similar to these:

"It means telling customers that we're glad to see them again."

"It means asking customers to come back again."

"We need to treat customer like they're a member of our family."

"We need to give customers our undivided attention."

Is driving this kind of change simple? Yes. The very successful program I've just described was, in fact, a very simple program. It was about getting the attention of its audience and getting across simple, clear messages about great customer service. Is doing this easy? No. But it can be done. Now, most companies don't employ 35,000 retail clerks in thousands of stores so the tools used in the program I've just described wouldn't be economically feasible for many retailers.

But here's the important point: the twin forces that drove the success of this large performance improvement program can be replicated in a retail store of any size. These forces are, first; get the attention of the folks whose behavior you want to change. Get them to listen to you; and, second, keep the messages simple. It's simple stuff that creates indelible impressions.

Let's go back to some things I've said about Lean thinking. Lean is all about recognizing that all employees are of equal value in terms of their impact on the success of the organization. In fact, it's retail clerks who are the primary drivers of retail success. They're the ones who create those indelible impressions that drive sales. Lean also teaches that respect is a two-way street. If a manager shows respect for his employees, they'll show respect for the manager. When the manager talks with them, they'll listen. They'll listen to what the manager has to say. Just like the country and rock audiotape I described got the attention of its audience.
In the second podcast in this series, I described a very powerful and simple tool call the IdeaBoard that demonstrates to employees that their observations are valued and respected. It conveys respect loud and clear. Doing this, it meets the first challenge: Getting the attention of the folks whose behavior you want to change.

The IdeaBoard also could help meet the second challenge and in a way that would have added a lot of power to the program I've just described had we known about it at the time. How could the IdeaBoard do this? It could be used to have employees themselves coming up with simple, but powerful, ways of creating indelible impressions. In other words, it could be used to support the development of an employee written guide on how to provide great customer service. What could possibly have greater credibility for a team of retail employees than a book that they wrote themselves? Nothing.

And what a difference it makes to have employees focused on the delivery of simple, powerful messages that tell customers over and over again. "We're here to serve you and we really like doing it." "It makes our day."

Consider these two encounters with retail employees. Here's what happened as I was using a coupon I had received via e-mail from a major book store chain. The coupon stated very clearly that it was good for a free coffee or latte. I ordered a peppermint latte. The clerk said, "That'll be $1.02 more." I replied, "Your coupon doesn't say that it's only good for a certain type of latte." He replied in a voice that reflected his complete unawareness of the impact of what he was saying, "I know it, but it should have. That'll be $1.02."

And here's another retail encounter. My wife, Dolores, and I were back again in our favorite grocery store going through the checkout lane. When the checker picked up a carton of eggs we were buying, she asked Dolores, "Did you check these?" Dolores replied, "No" and the checker immediately opened the lid, looked at the eggs, shook them gently and moved her fingers over the eggs to make sure they all moved and weren't stuck to the package. She added, "I wouldn't want you to get home with a cracked egg." Wow! This home of the indelible impression had created another one! Why indelible? First, it showed a complete focus on the customer and, second, it had never happen to us in any of the grocery stores with whom it competes. It was an absolute customer service differentiator. And it is Lean thinking that drives this kind of behavior, the kind of behavior that builds sales.

The retail employees in your store can be transformed into employees who routinely provide your customers with the kind of indelible impressions that will build your sales with individual customers and steadily bring new customers through your doors. We can partner with you in making this happen. Your company can benefit right now from the power of Lean thinking and Lean work processes. We can provide training and consulting services right now that will make this happen. I'd greatly value the opportunity to talk with you about these services but, more than that, I'd appreciate the opportunity to listen to you describe the major challenges you face in building sales in today's down economy. Let's talk soon. Call me, George Friesen, at 314-303-0612. Anytime. Let's talk. Have a good day!