Customer Service Secrets from Trader Joe’s

Posted by jlubans on February 27, 2013

Because of its tight-lipped ways, Trader Joe’s can make for the wrong kind of story, all about the covertness of its German owners. For example, this headline from a 2010 story in Fortune: “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe's
It’s true, TJs managers will not talk about the business side of the business, but the “crew” – as the staff are known - offers just about the best service in the retail grocery business. You’ll have a hard time “getting (TJs) kind of love at the Piggly Wiggly.”
A TJs crewmember interacts with you more like a person than a consumer in an economic equation. TJs staff appear to understand the fundamental truth about retail: if you help people find what they are looking for, and make them feel good in the process, they will spend money in your store AND they will come back. The money from the sales, the profits, then can be used to further enhance the enterprise for staff and customers.
When I called the nearby TJs in Chapel Hill, inquiring about a discontinued item, I was put straight thru to the store’s manager, Greg Forte. I told him about my dismay in the absence of TJs stone-ground Southern Grits. When would the product be back? He expressed surprise and said something like “I love those grits!” But in the time it takes to check a computer inventory, he confirmed the sad news. Both of us commiserated about the situation. However, when I asked him if I could come by and interview him about their excellent customer service, his tone became wary. He’d have to check with headquarters. I offered to write a letter explaining my interest, who I was, and how I worked, but he said no, that’s not necessary. He’d get back to me in a week. Not.
So, as you can see, TJs strength is not in talking about the organization but in doing service better than most other food stores. I had the good fortune to interview Saul Zabar co-owner of Zabar’s, New York’s delightful food shop at 79th and Broadway. Over several months, Saul showed me the business, gave me back office and kitchen tours, allowed me to accompany him more than once on his weekly tasting of hundreds of pounds of smoked salmon at a Zabar’s vendor in Brooklyn, and he gave me full access to a dozen or more staff to ask any question I wanted. It made for an insightful story about the complex world of a retail business. It’s in the book:
Chapter 14: A Zabarian Experience
But, TJs, and its German owners, think differently from Saul – perhaps for their own right reasons. Still, you can derive much about a business by how you are treated. TJs staff have an obvious interest in what the customer thinks. Is this a trained-in empathy? Or, maybe that empathy is in the corporate DNA, an inherited gene from TJs California culture that the new German owners have the smarts not to re-engineer.
Well, just how does an organization establish a uniform friendliness toward its clients? Somehow, TJs staff can be spontaneous and not worry about getting yanked by corporate policy. As much as I like Costco, the staff on the floor invariably avoid eye contact with customers. If the customer makes the effort and asks a question, the response is usually positive, but it’s up to me to take the initiative. Yeah, I know Costco’s "great", but eye contact or a friendly nod is the exception, not the rule. Why is that?
TJs apparent policy is to look people in the eye and ask how to help. Better, the policy seems to say, if you see someone who might need help, you help. You stop re-stocking the shelf and help the customer find what she is looking for. Or, if the store does not have it – most TJs have a limited line of products, e.g. one type of lip balm, no more - you confirm that and express your regrets. You do not leave the customer wandering around (like I have done numerous times at Costco) hoping for serendipity to come to my rescue. When I asked a staffer in TJs dairy area about where a vegetable might be – I’d looked and looked in the produce area - he stopped his inventory of the cheese bins, without a hint of “I’m busy” - and walked me to a shelf in produce. It was the same shelf I had scrutinized. There was the product. He pulled it out and showed it to me. Sale made!
At TJs there’s a detente in the barrier between staff and customer, and there’s no enforced impersonality; apparently it is OK to be yourself. (Much like the individuality permitted staff at SWA.) There’s a much mis-guided concept in too many organizations that staff must present the same face to every customer. Those plastic smiles seem to be saying, “We are impartial, we are fair, we are consistent, just like the robotized “Your call is very important to us.” It’s a different message that the client receives: We may empathize with you, but we know our limits; we know the narrow boundaries of what we can and cannot do; I do not have permission to help you beyond point x, regardless of the national advertising that “if something’s not right we’ll fix it!”
Think back about a great interaction between you and an employee. What happened? I remember thirstily looking for a water fountain at Frankfurt’s vast-desert-of-an-airport. When I asked someone behind the service desk at Lufthansa for the nearest one, she said there were not any water fountains, then left her desk, unlocked a door, went inside, retrieved and gave me a bottle of water! Did I like that?
I was pushing one of TJs tiny grocery carts – with several bottles of wine and olive oil rolling around – when one of the “crew” observed me and made some comment about the party I must be having. Then she asked if I could use a box for the bottles. Actually, she did not ask me, she got the box and put the bottles in it so I could continue do my shopping.
On another visit, I saw a couple staff restocking the shelves. (Consider that this would be an obvious inefficiency to any retail expert. Why not stock only when the store is closed? Imagine the savings from a minimum wage stocking crew that can focus on the job at hand? Instead, TJs re-stocks during the day, while the customer is there. A stocker is a ready target for questions that take him away from his job and add to the retail labor cost. Actually, restocking during the day is a highly efficient way to get staff out on the floor to help people find what they need (or to try something new!).
But back to the re-stocking staffers. A little boy, three or four, imitating two TJ staff, was also re-stocking a bottom shelf. This was fun for the little boy. Work as fun. Imagine that.
It’s remarkable to me that the staff were OK with the little boy’s playful interest instead of telling the parent their insurance does not permit children playing with the merchandise.
I wonder what TJs policy manual looks like? Is it hundreds of pages of detailed direction or is it one page with the simple statement, “Help the customer.” I cannot confirm that, I can only admire how TJs helps their customers (of all ages and economic circumstances*).
The Fortune article concludes that TJs good staff benefits package makes for the good customer relations. I’d say it helps, but good pay is hardly the only reason. It’s in the corporate culture. It’s what is transmitted and demonstrated daily to every staff member. The rules can be bent – what’s the harm in the little boy playing at re-stocking? And, yes, when someone asks for help, you do stop what you are doing and help.
Back in the day of library card catalogs, I recall the controversy over a card filer’s helping a library user find a book. It made perfect sense to me for a user to ask for help from someone who looked like a library worker. Yet there was considerable opposition from some staff. The filer might misguide the user! The filer’s job was to file not to assist, etc. All this was nonsense. A type of nonsense that the TJs organization has overcome in its expectations of each crewmember to help people to the best of their ability. If the Chapel Hill manager agrees to an interview I’d love to pass on something more substantial about TJs than my best guesses.

*However TJs customer base is largely white. Perhaps curiously, the Durham (where I live) Aldi store (owned by the same German family but run in an altogether different fashion) has a fair number of black customers.
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