Motivating Service and Retail Employees

We've all patronized places of business where a clerk or cashier delivers a memorized spiel: “Hello and welcome to Happy Burger. If you have any questions regarding our vast and varied menu, please do not hesitate to ask. Today's special is the double Swiss-cheese burger with our own special barbecue sauce. How may I assist you today?”

Now, consider your reaction to these rather robotic renditions of common courtesy? Some customers understandably deem this kind of thing very annoying, and liken the experience to being serviced by an army of androids. For others, however, this robotic brand of courtesy is better than the alternative — no courtesy at all.

The reality is that this indoctrination of a short “welcoming the customer” speech is at least a start. It's what managers attempt to do first and foremost with a workforce of men and women who need a mother lode of training, particularly in the soft skills of interpersonal communication.

Indeed, when you're confronted with employees who lack even the most rudimentary social and professional skills, it's generally prudent to ask them to commit to memory a few sentences of civility and regurgitate them on cue. And then you can take it from there.

Motivate with Few Motivators

In addition to the lack of social skills, perhaps the most difficult hurdles that managers must leap over in retail and service businesses are associated with employee commitment and self-motivation.

If you're managing in a busy restaurant or big chain store, for instance, you're more than likely expected to work many long and hard hours. You're asked to motivate yourself in doing a tough job without the most obvious of rewards, and to instill that same push and determination in your employees. This isn't an easy task in the office place, and it's a more difficult one, as you might imagine, in a retail or service business environment.

Respect up and down the workplace is critical to achieving positive results. This means you must be respected and respect others. It is particularly important in retail and service businesses to elevate respect to its highest level, as many employees don't respect their jobs or feel respected in doing them.

For starters, the paycheck and benefits in most of these jobs are not as fleshy as in corporate office jobs. And when the pay is on the lower end of the scale, it's very hard to sermonize on the many benefits of going all out in the job. Another problem is that the range of opportunities for advancement in these businesses is ordinarily very limited. In other words, it's tough for you to convince people that the sky's the limit while working in a coffee shop or a sneaker store.

Honesty Is the Best Policy

So, what you must do first in any kind of retail or service management position is tell the whole truth, as you would anywhere else. That is, don't make promises that you can't keep — or that nobody believes — and don't manufacture promotion opportunities that exist only in people's imaginations: “If you work your buns off here, you've got a chance to be the next Ronald McDonald and make personal appearances all across the country. You could be earning a six-figure income in no time flat.” People are a gullible lot, but not that gullible.

Since you can't always offer better job opportunities, your coaching stance must place the emphasis on where it properly belongs — on continuous learning on the job, and the growing of skills wherever and whenever possible. At first glance you might think that the notion of a continuous learning environment thriving in a fast-paced retail or service setting is ludicrous. You might also determine that you be perceived as the court jester if you opined on growing skills and career advancement to a gaggle of underpaid and overworked employees.

Well, you'd be greatly mistaken if you accepted this negative scenario as inevitable. Let's say, for example, that you're managing in a hustling and bustling eatery. You could assume that your staff — waiters, waitresses, and so on — would turn a deaf ear to your preaching about acquiring knowledge and building skills on the job. But why assume this? Really, your success here boils down to your communication abilities and the bond of trust that you establish between yourself and your people.

Many managers in high turnover retail and service businesses opt to sugarcoat reality. They paint rosy pictures at odds with reality and promise things that will never see the light of day. They go this route because they believe it's the only way to raise the performance level of their employees. It's an approach that usually gets them nowhere fast. If, on the other hand, you make the case that learning on the job — any job — transcends the job role itself; if you make the case that growing skills — any skills — encompasses more than meets the eye, you will witness performance progress.

Let's return to your job in the restaurant. You're a coach rather than a traditional manager. In this setting, you'd be charged with making the case that beyond waiting tables — a skill in itself — is a steep learning curve with copious learning opportunities. Further, your responsibility as a coach would be to illustrate the many lessons learned in waiting tables. For instance, dedicated waiters and waitresses acquire invaluable people skills while ministering to hungry customers. In the fast-paced environment of a restaurant they also learn conflict resolution, which is another indispensable and highly coveted skill in any job.

Experience is priceless. Coaches in retail and service management positions need to emphasize this time and again. They need to show how gaining knowledge and growing important skills, such as responsibility, customer relations, and overall work ethic, are invaluable and can lead to bigger and better things.

And since many people — including some college graduates — find themselves working in fast-food joints these days, let's patronize one to illustrate another point. Deep-frying chicken fingers may seem like a dead-end job — and, admittedly, it is to some people — but believe it or not, there's a lot of learning and growth potential downdraft of that hot oil (with no trans fats, of course). Coaching in this particular situation would ask that you turn the chicken fingers into chicken cordon bleu.

That is, if you see learning opportunities as more than just completing tasks competently (frying chicken fingers to perfection, etc.), you venture beyond the narrow parameters of the job itself and take in such important job skills as responsibility, ability to follow directions, customer service etiquette, and the overall work ethic. You thus make every task that you assign your staff a multi-layered affair with important lessons therein.

If, in such coaching exertions, you convince your employees that what they do today truly matters — no matter what their job roles — you'll have successfully upgraded a work environment that sorely needed upgrading. You'll have upgraded, too, a group of people who sorely needed a boost. You'll have altered a job culture for the better.

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