Retailer Stew Leonard Jr. on Moo-tivation

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Customer Engagement
Customer Experience
If you're from the New York Metro area, you've likely heard of Stew Leonard's. It's a grocery store fully stocked with a reputation for outstanding service -- and a clear commitment to delivering that level of service every day. Consider the huge rock outside its stores with the following engraved on it:

If you're from the New York Metro area, you've likely heard of Stew Leonard's. It's a grocery store fully stocked with a reputation for outstanding service -- and a clear commitment to delivering that level of service every day. Consider the huge rock outside its stores with the following engraved on it:

Our Policy

Rule 1. The customer is always right.

Rule 2. If the customer is ever wrong, see rule number one.

President and CEO Stew Leonard Jr. shared his secret sauce for ensuring service excellence -- employee engagement -- during a keynote Q&A with Curtis Bingham, president and founder of the Chief Customer Officer Council, at NACCM earlier this week.
"Customer service is a moving target. We're working as hard at it as everyone else," Leonard said. "It's an ongoing battle to get your employees to treat customers right."

The first line of defense in that battle is hiring right. "Customer service come from your heart," he said. "You have to have people who want to help customers. We try to find those people during the hiring process."

Once Stew Leonard's finds the right people, its management team supports them with ongoing training, communication, and recognition. "It can't be a great place to shop if it's not a great place to work," Leonard noted, adding that management that treats employees poorly can't expect them to serve customers with a smile.

One aspect of the company's employee engagement efforts is to collect customer service stories -- positive and negative -- and then share those stories during training. "Employees like to hear stories about our own experiences in the store," he said. One old favorite is a story about a disagreement Stew Leonard Sr. once had with a customer over the taste of the store's eggnog. She was demanding her money back because she didn't like the product and he was replying with how much every else likes it. By the time he agreed to refund her money, she snatched it while proclaiming that she would never again shop at Stew Leonard's. The lesson learned is that the cost of the refund (and the disagreement) wasn't worth the price of a lost customer.

"Our goal is, 'How can you make sure the customer leaves with a smile?'" Leonard said. "You want to create entrepreneurs within the company who will take whatever action is necessary to satisfy the customer." The customer may not always be right, but you need to find a way to give them want they want to keep their business, he said. "We want customers to leave happy."

Leonard shared the story of one customer, a real estate agent, who ordered several trays of lasagna for a training session she was conducting with new agents at her home on a Saturday. One employee, Chef George, suggested that she buy another tray to ensure that she would have enough food; she declined. That Saturday she called in a panic because she was running out of food, and blamed Chef George for not insisting that she take the additional tray. He was off that day, so another employee, Chef Jackie, grabbed a tray of lasagna herself and drove it to the customer's home. Chef Jackie gave the customer the lasagna at no charge, with an apology for any inconvenience. Later the delighted customer brought all of the new agents on a tour of the store. That kind of customer satisfaction and word of mouth is worth far more than the cost of one tray of lasagna, Leonard said; it's invaluable.

"We're trying to make customer service the cornerstone of our business," he said. In the case of the company's wine stores, for example, no one walks in without being asked for help. "Many people say no; how do you get them to say yes?" Leonard commented. One approach the company is trying is instead of asking, "How may I help you?" asking something like "What are you cooking this evening? Can I recommend a wine to accompany it?" Says Leonard, "We're still figuring out the best approach, but the goal is to engage each customer."

Other ways Stew Leonard's is support employees in their endeavors to serve customers well is through communication like company rallies and a newsletter that highlights customer service stories, as well as other information. There's also a considerable focus on appreciation and recognition. "We like to catch people doing something right," Leonard said. The company provides free lunches after big holidays, and give some employees a "Moo note," which is a certificate of appreciate for doing something great for a customer that the employee can later present to receive a free lunch.

The company also encourages career growth--one employee, for example, started as a sweeper and is now a chef; he received training from the company along the way to support that growth path. One way Leonard encourages employees to take risks that will help them grow is the Sweaty Palm Award. He presents about half a dozen a year to employees who stretch outside their comfort zone, like giving a speech or trying a new job or transferring stores.

"We're trying to make everyone at Stew Leonard's a 'chief customer officer,'" Leonard said. "We really want to try to build relationships."

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