Does your store have a culture?
By Harry J. Friedman

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When you walk into any store, anywhere, anytime, and spend a few minutes, you can generally categorize that store as one of the following:

Does your store have a culture?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No
  • Salespeople are hired to ignore you.
  • Salespeople will help only when asked.
  • Nobody's home!
  • Salespeople are pushy and drool at the site of you and your money.
  • Salespeople provide professional care, are knowledgeable and make it easy to shop and buy.
There are certainly more categories or (as we'll discuss here) cultures to identify retail operations. Each store has its own culture, and the question that must be answered is whether the culture in your store is the way you have planned it to be perceived by the customer.

The Culture Mystique

There is a large chain of retail stores on the West Coast of which everyone's impression is the same. No matter who you ask or which branch you are referring to, the answer is always: This company has the best customer service of any similar store around. It is a pleasant place to shop, and the level of customer service is consistently superb.

Because I'm in the training business, I'm often asked how they did it. I also hear comments such as, "They must spend a fortune on training." However, after conducting research, I found that this company did not provide a substantial amount of training in customer service skills and no sales training at all. How did they develop this kind of culture in their stores? The answer is two-fold.

First, they do have a pay plan with an incentive for selling as well as tracking their personnel's sales statistics. Certainly this is a factor, but it doesn't explain how they created a culture for superior service with very little or no formal training.

This happens during the employee's original selection interview. When a person applies for employment at this company, they are usually no stranger to the company's reputation. Applicants are then asked four questions.

The first question is, "What do you think our company is best known for?" The answer is always, "Terrific customer service." It's guaranteed. Anyone who knows anything about this company knows this to be true.

Next the applicant is asked, "What do you believe customer service means?" The answer is easy. It really doesn't take training for people to know what customer service is. All you have to be is a customer yourself. So a typical response to this question is, "It means doing everything possible to make sure that the customer is completely satisfied."

The third question is, "Which customers would you try and provide with this customer service?" Naturally, the applicant answers, "Every single customer."

Finally, the interviewer acknowledges that the applicant's views on customer service are in line with the company's views and says something like the following, "You're hired. The moment that you don't provide great customer service to every single customer, you will no longer be employed here. Do you understand?" The applicant answers, "Yes," and begins work.

Now the company has the burden of following through with the consequence of termination should any salesperson not comply with the standard set for customer service. The fact that they have followed through and will continue to do so may have been significant in the beginning when the culture for these retail stores was being established, but not anymore.

Today, there are few disciplinary cases relating to delivering customer service resulting in termination. There is just no need for it. The culture takes care of many potential problems.

First of all, most people don't even apply unless they are willing to provide the service they are accustomed to receiving as a customer in the store. Secondly, because everyone else who works in the store is behaving a certain way, it is looked upon unfavorably by fellow salespeople when a co-worker isn't playing the game. The actual accountability for customer service is enforced to a certain extent by the salespeople themselves.

Employees Come and Go — Systems Stay

This retail store chain is the perfect example of a company creating a system in which to place people, not just building a system around a current staff of people. People go away and you have to start over, but systems never go away.

This company has a system that includes high standards of customer service. When an employee leaves the company and is replaced by a new face, the company doesn't come down to the new employee's level. The new employee must rise to the standards set by the company. They simply fit the people into the system.

In contrast, another very large chain of retail stores has a self-service environment, but very consistent and liberal policies on exchanges and returns. The company's customers don't expect service on the floor, but know that any problem they may have with a product will be handled courteously, promptly and to their satisfaction. This is the particular culture that has been chosen and developed by the company. It is a culture that is recognized by the consumer and identified with this company as it was intended.

In some stores, however, the customer receives mixed messages. For example, have you ever gone into a store and received adequate or excellent service, but when it came to returning something, found that the store's return policies were contemptible? Or the store is run by the owner or a very responsible manager who brings a personal touch to the business, but if anyone else waits on you, you're in trouble.

These are perfect examples of mixed messages to the customer. If you stood outside a store that does not have a defined culture and took a survey of each customer's impression of the store, you would gather a variety of different answers. In some cases, customers would probably not even be able to think of anything specific to say; the store made no impression at all on them.

Build a Consistent Culture

A store's culture may also stem from the manager instead of company policies. This is quite common when upper management does not set standards. Upon visiting seven stores of a client with whom I was consulting recently, this was clearly evident.

As I walked into one store, the entire crew seemed sluggish, bored and indifferent toward customers. Conversely, the next store I visited, only a few minutes away, was filled with laughter, smiling faces and genuine concern for the customers. Not only could I feel this immediately from the salespeople, but from the customers in the store as well. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

When I met with both managers the next day (neither were in their stores when I was there), I was easily able to match up the managers with the stores in their charge. And the owner had no idea of the extreme differences in the ambiance of the two stores until I brought it to his attention.

Step back and look at the culture, if any, you currently have in your store. Is it the kind of culture you want? Did it happen because you caused it to happen? If you are unhappy with what you see or feel, it's time to take the steps to change.

Not only will the undesirable culture be perpetuated by your current employees, but new employees will adapt to it quickly. Decide now what message you want to convey to your customers, and make a commitment today to getting there.

Harry J. Friedman is an internationally acclaimed retail consultant, trainer, author and speaker, and founder/CEO of The Friedman Group. He has been featured on CBS News, FOX News, the Wall St. Journal and has worked with many of retail's iconic brands. Since 1980, his retail sales and management techniques have been used by nearly 1 million retailers worldwide. For information on upcoming retail seminars, training programs, on-site training, and eLearning, call 800-351-8040, email or visit