Photo by agaumont (Flickr)

Photo by agaumont (Flickr)

It’s hard out there for a retail or hospitality shop owner–in some ways it’s even harder for the employees that work the front lines of any store. Your customers are people, after all, and I don’t mean that in a way that suggests that they ought to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m more saying that people are the worst kind of folks I know. People are the kind of folks who hear an old cliche like “The customer is always right” and take it literally. Just type “dumbest Yelp reviews” into Google, and revel in the sheer amount of nitwittery that pollutes the internet: people who are incensed about a restaurant that doesn’t offer take out because the restaurant won’t let them do take out; complaints that a steakhouse has too much meat on the menu; a poor review of a sushi place that has great food and service, but doesn’t employ “Asian sushi chefs.” That last one is my favorite, because it’s essentially taking billions of people from hundreds of different cultures and assumes they’re all interchangeable—it stands as an example for all the poorly thought-out self serving reviews on that site. What makes it tougher is store owners and employees often just have to take the abuse and entitlement and keep a smile on their faces. Since I don’t own a store or restaurant of any kind, I can just say the things you all are thinking. People are largely terrible, and those of you kind souls in the minority must suffer their foolishness daily. No one wins when when we sink to their level, but it can be awfully hard sometimes to not say what you’d really like. Buddha once said, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or for ill,” before adding, “F@!k the haters.”

Because of the imbalance inherent in the customer/host relationship, complaints are often dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with solutions ranging from heartfelt apologies to comped meals. The thought is that you take a bit of a loss now to ensure good will and follow up visits. The best offense isn’t always a solid defense, though. Unreasonable people will predictably behave unreasonably, and they’ll hold grudges about the most inane things; offering freebies may get them to come back once to cash in, but you can’t count on them changing their tune because of it. The people over at Help Scout cite a stat that claims it takes 12 positive experience to make up for one bad one. The best thing to do, then, is to be proactive and not give people something to complain about. There will always be crybabies who find something to whine about, but if you’re on top of your game you can easily weather any negativity storm by not letting it rain hate to begin with with. To do this, your shop has got operate smoothly, ushering customers through a quick, turbulence free ride before sending them on their way. Unless you’re running an upscale establishment that charges a premium for ambiance and the experience, your customers are largely going to equate good service with speed. But beware of overdoing it: in their 2010 “Annual Mystery Shopping Guide,” the E-tailing group noted that when it comes to customer interactions over the phone or online:

While automation can be expedient, the resulting impersonal tone and risk of poor information are formidable.

Photo by Vitor Lima (Flickr)

“Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.”
Photo by Vitor Lima (Flickr)

Think of the the last time you called an office and were greeted by some automated telephone operator nonsense. Thank you for calling the legal defense hotline. Please spell the first three letters of the crime you have committed. That kind of thing. That may save money for the business and increase efficiency, but the customer becomes instantly annoyed. It’s a lot easier on customers to just talk to a person. You have entered DIS. For Disorderly Conduct, press 1. For Disturbing the Peace, press 2. Human conversations just aren’t like that. Technology can play a vital role in operational efficiency, but that’s no guarantee of customer satisfaction. This is why your POS needs to be designed around the human interaction that’s at the core of buying and selling. Automation is all well and good, but flexibility has a better chance of speeding things up.

Photo courtesy of Tornado Farms, Hawaii

Photo courtesy of Tornado Farms, Hawaii

Case in Point: We’ve got this burger joint in my town. You can add any toppings to your burger, choosing from a list of free ones and premium ones. My daughter, not quite getting the idea behind a burger joint, ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with avocado on gluten free bread. For some reason she likes gluten free bread. It’s strange. But anyway, none of the toppings or variations that you could order for a burger were available for selection in their POS when we ordered the grilled cheese sandwich. There was no way to specify gluten free bread, or add then charge us for the avocado. Meetings were held. Buttons were pressed. No solutions arrived. I was told the order could not be placed since no one could figure out how to tell the POS what the order was. I asked if they could maybe, you know, turn around and just talk to the line cooks standing a few feet away and explain how to make the sandwich.

 

Eventually, that’s just what they did, but the whole thing took way too long. And because there was so much time spent troubleshooting the system, the interaction I had with the cashier was all business. My daughter ended up loving her sandwich, and my double cheeseburger was delicious–no harm, no foul, as they say. But that POS is going to give them trouble if they don’t figure out how to use it. And this is where the human interaction part comes in.

A well designed POS shouldn’t operate like a flow chart. Like the automated phone line, the computer operates best within an if/then paradigm that is counterintuitive to the way humans interact. Imagine going through the checkout line at your grocery store, and before every item could be scanned the cashier had to say to you, “If you would like me to scan this item, say yes. To return it to its shelf, say no,” and you had to listen to the whole question over again each time. Imagine the lines. Imagine being five people deep in that line. I assure you shoplifting would instantly become de rigeur. We live in a world where someone walks into a crowded restaurant without a reservation and then complains on Yelp that they had to wait to sit down: speed is key. There’s a flipside to that, though, in that even the most predisposed hate-machines can’t help but be swayed by speedy and friendly service. Back at the burger joint, if it were as easy as the cashier just being able to add a note to the item (“add avocado”) and then key in a cost (“1”) then that leaves room for conversation–the full hospitality experience in less time. There are a lot of little things to ringing up a sale that can prolong it–modifications, finding variants, specifying discounts, bringing up rewards information, credit card transactions, counting out change, splitting payments, emailing receipts, I could go on–and the designers of a good POS won’t just think to include these functions. They’ll make them intuitive to use, so that no part of the process feels like an interruption. And this is perfect: people like to be treated like people, but not for very long. The quicker they go through your line, or place their food order, the happier they are. Most of all, this empowers the retail workers of the world to treat their customers like family–to welcome them with open arms, make them feel at home, then get them out the door as soon as possible till the next holiday rolls around.