Customer Service Philosophies and Training Shared at Wi10 [2]

Booksellers have long known that good customer service is essential for success. At the Winter Institute 10 education session “Creating Stellar Customer Service [4],” three booksellers whose store training programs are designed to help employees understand the stores’ customer service philosophies and protocols shared their best practices. The participating booksellers were Linda Marie Barrett, general manager at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café [5] in Asheville, North Carolina; Margaret Shaheen, a manager at Tattered Cover Book Store [6] in Denver, Colorado; and Tracy Taylor, general manager at The Elliott Bay Book Company [7] in Seattle, Washington. Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe [8] in Wichita, Kansas, moderated the panel.

Prior to the session, Barrett, Shaheen, and Taylor distributed handouts [9] that they typically give to their new employees, all of which are currently available via’s education curriculum tab [10].

At Tattered Cover, “we believe that our stores should be welcoming places for our customers,” Shaheen said. “They should be able to come into our stores and practically feel like they are at home in their own living rooms, so we set up the stores in ways that we feel allow customers to access books, to sit all day and read, to browse.” To that end, she added, customers are even allowed to rearrange couches and armchairs as they see fit.

Tattered Cover, which has 150 employees at four locations along with three small stores at the Denver airport, also puts a premium on respecting their customers’ privacy, personal space, and “different ways of being,” Shaheen said.

“We never comment on what a customer is purchasing. We kind of take a responsive pose with customers. We wait for them to engage us in conversation before we engage them and that goes as far as we do not say, ‘How are you?’ We will say hello and we will greet customers with our body language, with a smile, but then wait for them to engage us.”

Describing the customer service philosophy and culture at Malaprop’s, Barrett shared her belief that there are two types of booksellers: cats and dogs — Malaprop’s employees, she said, fit more into the dog category.

“When a customer comes in the store,” Barrett said, “we want to do everything we can to be the best thing that happened to them that day and figure out how to please them.”

All three panelists agreed that the hiring process is crucially important in ensuring great customer service. To find the right people, Barrett has implemented insights and practices from restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business [11] (Harper).

Meyer, who spoke at ABA’s 2008 Winter Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, uses the metaphor of a “swan” to describe the ideal employee. Barrett explained: “Above the surface of the water, a swan is very graceful and moves fluidly. Below the surface, strong legs pump away working hard, unseen. We think of above the surface as emotional skills: how you interact with your customers and your coworkers, and below the surface are your technical skills: all the nitty-gritty things that run the store. At Malaprop’s, we all aspire to be swans.”

A hiring manager must learn to estimate an interviewee’s “swan” potential, she added.

What if, as time goes by, the swan turns out to be an ugly duckling? Taylor of Elliott Bay said that there are times, although rare, when it is appropriate to let someone go if he or she is not providing the type of customer service that is expected.

Letting someone go “always has ripple effects in so many ways, but the few times I have ever had to do that over service, I’ve had so many people on staff who were just waiting for that person to go, and they were thankful,” she said. “I am always surprised by that. But I’ve never had a negative reaction when [the firing has] been over someone not providing the right service.”

All three booksellers agreed that training new hires to meet customer service expectations is another very important piece of the puzzle.

Taylor explained that Elliott Bay  has a very regulated method: a four-week “passport” training program [12] that provides employees with a printed passport-like booklet divided into six sections: an introduction and history of the store, customer service and bookselling, store layout and section work, store procedures, technology, and the different areas of work at the store.

Each section is further broken down into boxes for each specific skill or required area of knowledge that trainees check off as they learn. After three months, managers officially review the employee’s progress and the completed passport, she said.

Over the first two weeks of Elliott Bay’s four-week program, the trainee will work Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. They will begin in the receiving area, opening boxes, labeling books, and sorting them onto carts or shelves to go up to the sales floor, she said. Soon, the new employee will begin computer and point-of-sale training. Directly after that, he or she will go up to the sales floor with the manager.

“The sole purpose of having them with the manager or with the owner is not to teach them the nuts and bolts of how the POS works,” Taylor said. “It’s really to teach them how we approach customers.”

During the second two weeks, the employee is paired with a staff member for shadow-training and to go over each page of the passport.  It’s the staff member’s job “to really teach them the nuts and bolts, the culture of the store, some of the things that maybe the managers might not tell them but that everybody else knows,” Taylor said.

Shaheen, a 14-year veteran of Tattered Cover, said that teaching new employees about the store’s history [13] can go a long way toward imbuing new hires with a sense of ownership and thus an incentive to provide good service. 

Shaheen shared an anecdote she often tells employees to illustrate Tattered Cover’s customer service philosophy. The tale, known as the “Two Bikinis Story,” has become company legend: Years ago, a customer bought a book at the store for her beach vacation. The book got wet, and the woman got ink dye on her swimsuit. When she came back to the store to complain, Tattered Cover paid for a new bathing suit. When this occurred a second time, the store actually purchased a second new bathing suit for the customer.

“On the one hand it seems a little bit crazy, but on the other hand it sort of shows that whatever you are doing for a customer is never going to be wrong. So for new employees, when you’re wondering, ‘How should I handle this situation?’ Well, you give both bikinis and we’ll talk about it later,” Shaheen said.

This anecdote is part of the store’s eight-day training program. “We train folks so they have enough understanding of the store that in most cases they can handle any situation and do whatever it takes to make a customer happy,” Shaheen said. 

“Our feeling is that every customer who leaves our store will tell their friends about the experience they had at our store,” she added. “So maybe it costs a lot to buy two swimsuits, but it costs a lot more if a customer leaves your store and is unhappy and is telling all her friends about her bad experience.”

Customer service has always been a priority for Malaprop’s, Barrett said, though in-house staff training has evolved over the years.

Malaprop’s teaches its employees the Zingerman’s method, [14] as detailed in Ari Weinzweig’s Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service (Hyperion). The method, developed at the popular Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is broken down into three principles: Engage the customer and listen carefully; get them what they want accurately, politely, and enthusiastically; and go the extra mile in some way.

The Zingerman’s book also introduces Code Green and Code Red forms on which employees record the details of good or bad customer interactions. Managers then use these records to identify best practices. An employee uses a Code Green form [15] to jot down details of a particularly good customer interaction and a Code Red form [16] to describe what went wrong in a bad one.

“[People’s ideas of good customer service] can be very subjective,” Barrett said, “so we found it was important to have clear expectations about what your idea of customer service is and then relay that to your staff, and you can do that in many ways.”