I sometimes get frustrated by poor customer service – no, I get frustrated all the time when it is bad, especially when I am treated with disdain. In situations like the aforementioned, I attempt to keep my cool and offer a different perspective, but not always successfully. It would seem that many shop floor staff and restaurant waiters just want you to check out quickly to get their tip or salary, even if you frequent the establishment regularly. Building a relationship with the patron is not a consideration as they spend more time talking to their colleagues or glancing at their social networks. So doing, they miss many opportunities for greater tips or breeding loyalty from their customers.

Brian Parsley, motivational speaker and business consultant, however, suggests that “courtesy and compassion towards customers could be your most powerful and persuasive business tools” and published on LinkedIn a personal experience he had in a grocery store: “I’d picked up some food to take home for lunch, but at the till, I realised I’d left my wallet at home. I asked the manager whether he could hold the groceries for me until I returned. To my surprise, he said they couldn’t do that – but suggested: “Why don’t we ring them up for you, and then you take them home and come back to pay for them?” I was shocked at his trust in me.” Parsley went on to note that the result of his published article on the experience was thousands of likes, sharing and comments – because, as he said, “people crave compassion more than ever”. He also went back and paid for the grocery items.

There seems to be a prevailing paradigm amongst retailers, restaurants and other similar businesses that, given the slightest opportunity, customers will take advantage of you. As a result, risk management has necessitated systems behind which employees hide, rather than attempting to bless customers with service that could potentially generate higher turnover. “Unfortunately that’s our policy” is the most overused bureaucratic excuse in the retail environment and rather points to disempowerment, a lack of training and pathetic service overall. Instead of extending trust (which usually leads to higher levels of patronage from customers and a more integrated culture of trustworthiness amongst employees), relationships are managed through rules, with a resulting bureaucracy to govern processes. Of course, all businesses need some controls – systems should never be abused and management should not be negligent – but these controls should never inhibit creativity, expressions of compassion and understanding and a willingness to help the customer whenever possible.

I call the extension of trust, with resultant enhanced loyalty and trustworthiness, “trust reciprocity”. The relationship becomes mutually beneficial – as the retailer (management and other employees) extends trust to customers (smile, greet in a friendly manner, assist willingly, give advice, make eye contact, etc.), an emotional connection gets generated and a customer will typically respond with loyalty, greater levels of spend and word-of-mouth marketing. As management extends trust to employees (recognise their giftedness, creativity and strengths and reward innovation appropriately), employees will typically rise to the occasion (perform better, start looking for improvement opportunities and be dedicated in their attempts to connect with customers emotionally). Trust reciprocity triumphs over debilitating bureaucracy if the following fundamental tenets are practised by leaders:

  • Leaders are to “walk the talk” – uncompromising trustworthiness is the hallmark of leadership character traits that create an environment where honesty, reliability and accountability are the norm.
  • Leaders must align all systems and processes to company values – repeated conversations around values and how these translate into customer service are essential. Behaviour changes positively when employees are involved in offering their own ideas for growing relationships with customers.
  • Leaders must engage employees positively – personalise interactions with employees to model the kind of expected interactions with clients.
  • Leaders should recognise and reward exceptional employee behaviour – find creative ways to thank and reward staff for exemplary service – hand-written notes, coupons, gifts, etc.

Leadership practise of the principle of trust reciprocity paves the way for employee and customer loyalty and further reduces the need for “heavy-handed” bureaucracy.  Sure you will get those who abuse good will and sincerity, but the rewards generated by extending trust far outweigh cases of advantage-takers.

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