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Restoration Hardware’s Burning Question: 3 Tips For Rescuing The Customer Experience

The CEO of Restoration Hardware captured lots of attention for the message he sent to staff, which compared operations to a burning building. Some wondered if the missive went too far, but it really signifies the urgent role of employees to help rescue the customer experience through engagement. Three ways to motivate change in employees.


 

“We have a leadership culture, not a followship culture.”

If the leader of the free world said this, he (or she) would get a standing ovation. If the coach of a football team said it, the players would storm onto the field in full roar. When the CEO of a successful retail chain says it, it is to justify his belief in the inescapable role of employees in customer engagement and, ergo, corporate survivability. Damn the formalities.

Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman. Photo credit: Restoration Hardware

Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman. Photo credit: Restoration Hardware

The CEO, Gary Friedman, made the “followship culture” statement to Bloomberg in an interview that explained a memo he had dispatched to all employees of Restoration Hardware. His message captured lots of interest for its straightforward and colorful language – at one point he compared company operations to a burning building, and Restoration Hardware’s customers to the victims.

There was no actual fire, but there was a lot of smoke, and that caused some hand-wringers to question whether Friedman went too far. As if honest, from-my-gut-to-yours discussions among team members can no longer be tolerated.

To me, the fact that he had to explain the events at all signifies the urgent role of employees to rescue the endangered customer experience. If employees are not in it to win it, Friedman more or less wrote, they should be out. And why not? A retailer’s future balances on those first encounters between its employees and a potential customer – whether she will spend $25,000 in the coming years, or zero.

If anything, I believe the Friedman memo presents an opportunity to examine some key motivations behind required change, and the needed steps to building a retail culture that is rooted in a customer service environment.

Employees + Motivation = Customer Experience.

I will agree with one observation: Friedman knows how to turn heads with the pen.

Among the statements of his message to staff  (the caps were his): “WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LOSE ONE SINGLE CUSTOMER. NOT ONE. YOU WILL NEVER GET IN TROUBLE FOR MAKING A DECISION TO DELIGHT OUR CUSTOMERS. YOU WILL, HOWEVER, LOSE YOUR JOB IF YOU DON’T.”

There’s little argument that employees are a critical factor in determining a retailer’s return on investment. Impassioned employees are easy to spot, and their positivity is infectious – it inspires customer engagement and, ideally, loyalty. No single program can do this alone; it requires total buy-in from the staff.  And to get total buy-in, an organization has to prove it has its workers’ backs.

Let’s look at Friedman’s statement in a different way: He is giving his workers (likely through their managers) the freedom to make their own decisions to delight the customer. If an employee doesn’t have the interest or enthusiasm, then it just isn’t a good fit. It’s retail 101.

Genuinely engaged employees deliver something that strategy never will, and that’s passion. But it is the employer’s responsibility to provide its workers with the resources they need to make such important, better-informed decisions in real time.

Three Ways to Motivate Change

Passion is a heady word for retail, I know. Many would be thrilled with genuine enthusiasm, and that’s fine. So how to get it? It begins by motivating change among the ranks:

Back up autonomy with recognition. Friedman told employees they would never get in trouble for making decisions to delight customers. They could, however, get fired. Fear is a proven motivator, but when it comes to creating passion, a more positive approach would likely yield a more authentic outcome. Retailers can make a point of highlighting these employee decisions on a regular basis, perhaps with quarterly celebrations that invite workers to share their own tips.

Inspire feedback: The customer-employee relationship is a collaborative one, and customers would likely welcome the opportunity to play an active role in the company’s success – if it is clear it will benefit their own experiences. We’re talking more than mere email surveys, here. Retailers can send their most frequent guests invitations to coffee with key managers to discuss the good, bad and the ugly. Processes can be implemented to find out why, gently, some would-be customers leave empty-handed (a quick exit interview or postcard-sized feedback form may do the trick).

Change the culture: If retail managers want to know what is working and what is not, they should ask the people who see it everyday: the frontline associates. The payoff to building a sales culture based on customer engagement and a service environment is the feedback from those associates, which makes for the best test lab a retailer could see.

Innovation involves making things real, and in retail, once that product is on the floor, that’s as real as it gets. The customer, via engaged sales associates, will provide feedback on why products aren’t selling and ultimately make it clear to the merchant.

The lament of most retail organizations is location, location, location. The lament of the customer engagement culture, however, is listen, listen, listen – even if that comes from a combination of data, insights and feedback from associates.

This, for many, should be the burning issue.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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