You’d think it would be hard to make people unhappy in a candy shop, but fine chocolate can’t compensate for the disappointment of being mistreated by an employee.

I learned this the hard way during our family’s first post-lockdown reunion. I had taken my son and his grandparents to a candy store, and we were looking forward to a fun day out together — but as we strolled through the store, one of us accidentally sent an incorrectly sealed container of ice cream toppings tumbling to the floor.

Ideally, a positive employee would quickly have said something like: “Oops! Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” We would have bought an armful of treats, left a healthy tip and headed home to post a glowing review online.

What really happened, though, was that an employee snapped: “If you break it, you buy it.” Our appetites disappeared and after grudgingly paying $11 for the “damages” — far less than we’d intended to spend on treats! We left, with no intention of ever returning.

It’s tempting to blame our disappointing experience on a single grumpy employee, but the real culprit was poor training — and that’s a product of bad management. Good judgment is a teachable skill, not an inherent personality trait, and with the right approach business owners can turn any employee — even one with rough edges — into a customer-service guru.

Invest in Your Employees

It seems the owner of the candy shop missed an important retail concept: Employees who engage with customers play a key role in building satisfaction and making customers happy increases revenue. On the other hand, disappointing your customers means losing their trust and squandering both present and future revenue opportunities.

There are many reasons retail workers have been leaving their jobs during The Great Resignation. At the top of the list are the desire for better pay and benefits, opportunities for career growth and an escape from boredom and burnout.

Employers who are already struggling to operate in the dark may find they have to pay more to attract new hires than they’re paying their existing staff. That realization should be a wake-up call. The fact is, many businesses already have the makings of a superior team in their current workforce — and it makes more financial and business sense to invest in them, and train them to excel, than to pay a premium to onboard new employees.

Businesses should nurture the potential of their existing employees and then align their pay with their increased worth, instead of offering higher salaries to newcomers who know zero about the business. If done right, this approach can increase employee engagement and bolster retention, giving your best team-members a sense of their value and a clear path to advancement.

Encourage Self-discovery

Effective training enables employees to absorb product knowledge and develop their talents — including customer engagement skills — in a format that doesn’t send their boredom meters to the “I quit” zone. Perhaps boredom isn’t the root of all evil, but it’s a contender. The right training replaces the threat of boredom with the allure of engagement.

To keep things interesting, training should be personalized to match individual needs and to ensure that staff aren’t wasting valuable time being taught things they already know. Then the question becomes: Do they really know what they think they know?

False confidence is a real problem in retail. An employee who admits ignorance might not impress a customer on the knowledge front, but they might be trusted for their honesty. An employee who delivers inaccurate information with apparent conviction, on the other hand, might win a sale — but ultimately lose the customer when the truth is revealed.

That’s why the best training programs use confidence-based assessments to tailor learning programs to employees’ individual needs. By measuring both trainees’ knowledge and their confidence in their knowledge, these programs help employees to identify knowledge gaps and figure out they’re inadvertently working from incorrect “facts.”

This process is highly interesting to participants because everyone wants to know more about themselves. By framing training as a journey of self-discovery, it’s possible to make employees more invested in their success — and ultimately more capable and more confident in their abilities.

Giving employees more confidence can reshape an employee’s mindset from passive reliance on arbitrary rules (“You break it, you buy it”) to active consideration of which customer engagement approach is best (“Oops — sorry about the faulty packaging, I’ll take care of that”). An employee who knows the importance of treating customers respectfully is an employee who will keep customers happy, win their trust and drive more sales in the long run.

Do the Math

Aside from boosting your bottom line, quality customer engagements have another benefit: They make employees feel good. Employees who end their shift with a smile are more likely to feel invested in the business’s success and to strive to win a promotion rather than seeking employment elsewhere.

While I didn’t create a scene when confronted with the candy store employee’s rudeness, many people have shorter fuses. Abrasive, rule-oriented approaches to customer service can spark confrontations that demoralize both employees and customers. Apart from anything else, workers who are regularly confronted by unsatisfied customers are more likely to look for new employment.

It’s important to think about all these factors when considering the value of an effective training program — or the cost of failing to get customer service right. Every badly handled interaction leaves both customers and employees with a sour taste in their mouth, and the cost of those interactions adds up.

In my case, I posted a negative review of the candy store on Google, hoping to give the owner a taste of the actual cost of the customer experience breakdown.

A further breakdown, there was:

  • Reduced revenue because I spent less than I had planned.
  • The loss of future sales because I won’t be returning.
  • A missed opportunity for favorable word of mouth.
  • My negative review, which has been read by more than 600 potential customers.

All those losses sprang from a single employee’s failure to prioritize the customer experience — but also from the store owner’s failure to recognize the importance of proper training. With the right coaching, after all, that employee might have viewed a minor spillage (that was their fault) as an opportunity to strengthen the customer relationship and keep the store’s atmosphere intact.

There are fewer shoppers willing to venture into brick and mortar stores these days, and those who do are looking for great products — and a positive experience. Likewise, good employees are hard to come by, and they’re increasingly choosing to work in places where their own satisfaction matters just as much as the customer’s.

Those two trends are flip sides of the same coin. To succeed in this new environment, retailers of all kinds need to recognize that fact — and invest in quality training that both engages frontline employees and empowers them to create stellar customer experiences.