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Have you been to a shop where the retail assistants would tail you around the shop, so much so that you end up walking out of the shop really fast?

Retail is tough business. My family has been in retail and distribution for a long time, and I can tell you, it is not a business for the faint-hearted, and certainly not a business for those who are clueless about serving people well.

Customer service is perhaps as old as human history, when people started bartering things of value with each other. The process of negotiation can take many forms, but certainly, given that human beings are emotive creatures, the best transactions come from happy conversations and good feelings. Fast forward to today, much of customer service is still the same, albeit refined a many quantum leaps ahead. But fundamentally, customer service is still about mutual respect between service providers and customers, so much so that an exchange or transaction will take place smoothly, and a relationship can be nurtured and developed into a long-term one.

Every visit I remembered of Japan, has been one of service excellence. Whether I was visiting a large departmental store, an electronics mart, a restaurant, a hotel, a small ramen shop at the roadside, or hopping into a cab, I was never greeted with disdain or suspicion, but with courtesy and respect. I am a “gaijin” (foreigner) who speaks little Japanese, but the lack of convergence between my native languages and theirs, never once caused the Japanese folks I met to sprout a reluctance to provide great customer service. They would go through hoops to ensure I was properly served, either by dragging someone faraway who speaks a little English, to perhaps trying to use sign language and the written Japanese (which I can comprehend due to the Kanji characters). In short, their customer service is never hampered even by language or cultural limitations.

Conversely, I am a frequent visitor to the largest tech mall where I live. The customer service at the average shop is not stellar, though not that dismal either. It is fortunate that I often take great pains to learn whatever I need to at my own time, so that when I do visit the mall, I am prepared and will already know what I need and want.

However, there is one shop that consistently I would try to explore, but would eject myself out within seconds. The typical encounter is that I would walk in, and a retail assistant would begin to ask the usual question “can I help you?” The trouble is, when someone asks such a question, they have to be prepared to back up that claim, and such retail assistants with little or no computing knowledge, often fails miserably at “helping” anyone, especially someone of a geek like me. Then the retail assistant would start tailing me just a breath away behind me, as I try to walk through their galleys of products. They have about 5 retail assistants all focusing their gaze on you (simply because this shop doesn’t seem to attract any customer). You would then feel so uncomfortable you would walk out of the shop so quickly as if you are in a dungeon of roaches. Then I would suddenly remember why I never did buy anything from the shop before, until my aging memory somehow leads me to meander into the same shop maybe a year or two later.

Customer service is not easy to teach, especially if the cultural backdrop does not provide one where social etiquette, courtesy and mutual respect are nurtured. But manners can be learned, and knowledge of products and services can certainly be learned. It simply takes discipline, effort, hard work, and patience.

When employing frontline employees for retail, it is important to profile them so that they are suitable for successful human interaction. Not everyone is suited for interacting with others, and not everyone likes to converse. Some people are more suited for backoffice roles. There is nothing wrong with that. We need to fit the right people to the right roles.

Second, make it a point to have frontline employees learn well, the products and services you carry. It takes effort on your part as an employer, and it takes effort on the part of employees. But then, if an employee has no interest to learn about the products and services you carry, why should such a person work at your shop, much less, get paid? It is after all, an equitable relationship whereby an employee puts in the prerequisite effort and hard work demanded for a job, and the employer remunerates this employee fairly and promptly. It is a simple relationship.

Third, reward those frontline employees who consistently provide great customer service, and who consistently improve upon their craft, their knowledge, and their interactions. Make it known to all the employees of what is demanded of them, and why some of them are recognized through awards, better remuneration, or promotions. Not everyone is suited for a career in retail and distribution, and many will drop out. But the very few who excel, reward them well. Their good nature and service, their work ethic, their continuous learning, will rub off on the new entrants who share the same dreams.

The economy does not look like it will get better soon. The challenges faced by the retail and distribution industry will therefore heighten. We need people who can brave the challenges with us, soldiering forward, with a genuine smile and good nature to carry through the storm.