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The last time I was in Walmart I was stuck in a slow-moving lineup, watching the huge space now given to shoppers willing to check themselves out. I estimated four self-checkout machines per person using them, while at the cash registers we were reversed, four people per cashier. The space given for self-checkouts was at least double that of checkouts but more people were opting for the cashiers.

I thought of Costco, a prime low-cost competitor, which has two people at every cash register in my city, one tallying the price and another packing the goods, to speed customers along their way. Time is important these days. The competitors are trying two different methods of saving us time and keeping costs low. I’m sure many people using self-checkouts love them – it helps them to escape lineups. I applaud Costco’s system and stewed that day at Walmart.

When I worked as a bicycle delivery boy for my father’s grocery-butcher store as a teenager, we would be sent to help the cashier when customers were piling up. My father could see them from behind the meat counter and would get anxious if his customers were getting less than ideal service. Large companies can lose that sense of personal connection to customers as they watch from the executive suite. What substitutes are customer satisfaction surveys, studies and the P&L.

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According to one estimate, Americans – and Canadians are presumably somewhat similar – spend 118 hours a year on average in lineups. That day, I was watching the people ahead of and around me. But Harvard Business School professor Ryan Buell told a university publication people are also concerned with who is behind them – particularly if nobody is there. “If I can’t look behind me and see someone else is willing to wait longer than me, I start to question whether waiting in line is worthwhile,” he said. That can nudge them to leave.

He says service providers should show customers the work being done to serve them, which will make them mind the wait less and value the service more. All the action at Costco as the helper jockeys carts around and works in tandem with the cashier seems to fulfill that function. Customers can’t see the service effort at a telephone call centre so he recommends stressing the individual’s position in the line: “You are the fifth caller out of seven.”

In Excellence Wins, Horst Schulze, co-founder of the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, renowned for its customer service, recommends constantly surveying for satisfaction and loyalty, with questions like “How likely are you to come back again?” and “How likely are you to recommend us to your friends?” Anything under 90-per-cent positive is a red flag.

Companies have been turning to the question on recommending to others – the net promoter score – since Bain & Company consultant Fred Reichheld published his 2006 book The Ultimate Question. It has the virtue of simplicity: People who rate the company at 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale when asked whether they would recommend it are considered promoters. Customers who value the company at 7 or 8 are considered passive, while anyone giving a score below that is considered a detractor – somebody probably hurting your company by saying negative things about it.

But new research says it’s more complicated than that. Christina Stahlkopf, associate director of research and analytics at C Space, dug deeper to see whether people promoting or dissing the company actually did so. “Our survey revealed that 52 per cent of all people who actively discouraged others from using a brand had also actively recommended it. And across the NPS scale, we found consumers who had both actively promoted and actively criticized the same brand,” she writes in Harvard Business Review. So the assumption people are either promoters or detractors is incorrect. People are complicated.

When giving advice on a brand they consider how it fits the other person. For example, one person recommended Spotify to his friends for its ease of use and customizability but discouraged his parents because he felt it was too complicated and too expensive for them.

Customer loyalty is complicated. Companies part of the new trend to introduce self-service kiosks will be applauded by some and perhaps like gas retailers eventually get us all doing that work. But eventually is down the road. In the here and now, not handled well, it can be explosive. The customer experience includes checkout.

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Cannonballs

  • Consultant Wally Bock says after you talk with a team member about performance he or she should leave the meeting thinking about what they will do differently – nothing else.
  • Authors Mark Thompson and Brian Tracy recommend interviewing job candidates in three different places. The first is your office. The second, to test them in a different locale, might be over lunch in a nearby restaurant. And the third might be mixing up the setting, but doing a group interview with other members of your staff asking questions.
  • Recent research found a curvilinear relationship between average board of directors’ tenure and organizational performance. Financial performance improves as board members gain some experience but when the average tenure on a board hits 10 years in general performance declines.

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