Make Your Customer The Hero

Consider four areas of retail work – merchandising, staff, customers and tasks. Which is the most important? What if we had the most desirable product and best staff, but no customers? Tasks have to be performed, but the customer must always come first. To fulfil this, we need to engage good customer service - we need to put customers at the centre of the story.

Smiling Deli EPOS System Owner

What makes for good customer service?

Let’s define it as taking care of customers' needs by providing and delivering professional, helpful, high quality, service and assistance before, during and after the customer's requirements are met. We could add “desires” to needs and the words “to a customer’s satisfaction and expectation” or even for the highest levels we might consider service “beyond” expectation. If you are not constantly on the lookout for opportunities to improve your customer service, then you will miss out.

Good customer service is essential to the success of any business. It really is that simple.

You can offer promotions and reduce prices to bring in as many new customers as you want, but unless you can get some of those customers to return, your business probably won't be profitable for long. Good customer service is all about bringing customers back and about sending them away happy - happy enough to return, spend more and pass positive feedback about your shop to others, who may then visit you themselves and in their turn become repeat customers.

Put simply let’s look at the best and worst of customer service. What traits DO we expect of our staff?

  • Greetings with a smile;
  • Showing interest in the customer;
  • A relaxed approach;
  • Good manners;
  • Staff who go the 'extra mile'.

What WE DO NOT want to see.

  • Ignoring customers as they enter or when they are on the shop floor;
  • Negative body language;
  • Pouncing on customers / being a nuisance;
  • Poor manners;
  • Making customers feel inferior.

It’s not a given in my experience, but those that make a concerted effort to improve their customer experience also see employee engagement rates improve.

Ideally, we want to make sure all of our customers are champions for our cause rather than ambassadors of our failure.

The unhappy customer – not the vocal one, the one who simply tends not to tell the shop that they are unhappy with the level of service and leaves feeling unimpressed, won’t return and will probably tell others.

What we want is the champion who shops regularly with us, tells others and is therefore very valuable - and demonstrates that it's worth our time investing in customer service.

Now I have been around long enough to appreciate that we are all human; we can all 'react' to experiences and have moods. The bad news is that it doesn’t take long for moods to affect our attitude, affect others in our team, create a negative atmosphere and ultimately lead to a poor experience. But as I always say, we are the good guys and its for us to make our customers’ day better.

It's perhaps a British thing, or simply that we don’t want to go for the clichéd "over-friendly" welcome and offer of assistance because we detect a lack of sincerity, but engaging with our customers is essential.

Take the greeting – words of welcome, eye contact and a smile all show that we are friendly, trustworthy, aware that you have come into the shop and interestingly it means that we will get a response from the customer.

Welcoming Bar Owner EPOS Solution

This in turn should give us an indication as to whether they might need help, are in a hurry or are 'fine' and simply best left to their own devices. The good news is that you have made contact and can refresh that later on.

Ultimately, your customers rely on your staff for their knowledge of your shop, its products, provenance, ingredients, seasonality, promotions etc. so make sure all are informed enough to respond to most inquiries and know what to do if the questions become too detailed to answer.

That said, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. Customers will appreciate the honesty and your efforts to find the right answer.

In today’s major grocery world, we see less and less interaction with others. Staff are there primarily to stack shelves and the checkout teams in the supermarket have been replaced with an automated checkout, so that even the simplest of opportunities to chat and engage – in other words “provide customer service” - has, in the interest of profit, been lost.

For many of an older generation, this might have been one of the few conversations in a long and lonely day. Also, what of the younger generation? The Saturday employment opportunity has also been lost.

Retail Is Evolving - Are You?

So, we in the independent world, have to evolve our thinking and our offer. We must do all that the supermarkets do not do.

When Tesco reportedly started to close their deli counters, this was music to my ears!

It gives the independents the chance to build that special interaction with flexibility, knowledge and engagement – provide service.

Cheese Tasting

Yes, it comes at a cost, but whilst we are in the business of making money, we approach from a different position – our measures are not the same, and our shareholders have a different view.

Consider "Dwell-Time"...

The view seems to be from the large grocers to get you in and out as swiftly as possible – you know where items are, they are mainly pre-packed, and you leave via the 'quick' checkout.

I might also add that there is no real reason to stay – in terms of entertainment, discovery or atmosphere. For us "dwell-time" is something to be encouraged.

We like customers to take their time, make discoveries, talk to us. Yes, it does mean that they take up staff time and even valuable parking space, but many farm shops are not short of this valuable commodity.

We are not simply in the selling world. We are in the entertainment business; we are there to give our customers a good time. The single most important thing is to make people happy. If you are making people happy then, as a side effect, they will be happy to shop with you - repeatedly.

As business managers, looking at our P&L, we always consider labour to be the biggest cost. However, try thinking of service, not as a cost, but as a sales opportunity.

Service is how great businesses differentiate themselves from the competition and earn their customers’ business over and over again.

It has been shown that superior service is an investment that can help drive business growth. Investing in our staff, and ensuring they have the skills, training and tools that enable them to empathise and actively listen to customers are central to providing consistently excellent service experiences.

Customer Retention

Increasing customer retention rates increases profits. Consider the cost of serving the long-standing customer.

Returning customers tend to buy more from a shop over time and as they do, your operating costs to serve them decline. What’s more, returning customers refer others to your shop and they will often pay a premium to continue to shop with you rather than switch to an alternative or competitor with whom they’re not familiar, nor comfortable.

I was challenged the other day on my choice of butcher. I had bought a leg of lamb and it's possible I had paid more for this than an alternative butcher (I do also believe the meat is better). However, my reply to the challenge was “yes, but I was happy to pay the extra for the 12 or so times I was addressed as Mr Berry.”

Being serious though, good customer service does result in repeat business. Customers remember the service a lot longer than they remember the price and feeling unappreciated is the main reason customers take their custom elsewhere. What’s more, we are more likely to tell our friends about a poor service experience, than about a good one. Consumers also say that they have spent more money in a shop that delivers great service.

The Customer Service 'Plan'

In any commercial enterprise, the Business plan is key. However, when it comes to the retail world whilst it will delve deep into aspects of the offer and P&L, I often find little attention to a Customer Service plan.

Now for many this would be more about attitude than a real plan. It would probably start with an ambition to employ the right people. If this is fruitful, then job done. But let’s remember we are probably offering jobs, not careers, we are not paying the highest wages, and within the rural community that farm shops for example have as their pool of resource, we may simply not find the perfect employee.

In my early days owning and operating cafes, it didn’t take long for my bubble to burst when discovering that staff did not share my passion, enthusiasm, dedication and drive. When the challenges would be at their worst – late arrival, skipping shifts for whatever reason, poor attitude, etc., I found myself with the sad conclusion that it was better to have no expectation, and anything above was a bonus.

I have observed over time, that with growth in the business comes another challenge. Consider the genuine farm shop – a family operation. You probably encounter various members of the family as you make your way round the shop. They know, love and depend on that shop – so will probably consider all customers to be important and will be able to give you that genuine family welcome.

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However, with growth comes the need to extend the staffing levels beyond nearest and dearest, and employ outsiders; that’s when things can change, and the whole family atmosphere changes. You are now entrusting your livelihood and success to others. I met one farm shop owner who not only explains to every new employee what is required, but actively shadows all staff, for a good period of time before letting them out on their own. This would be the first rudiment of a Customer Service plan.

So how do we organise the customer experience? Let’s look at the elements of this...

Customer Service Strategy

This means setting standards, looking at which areas of the business to which it applies, which members of staff will be affected, the chain of command and probably some measures.

Specify your staff requirement – by this I mean in an ideal world, who would be your perfect staff member? – experience, attitude, character, etc.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect perfection, but it should be possible to work towards the correct team for your shop.


in my experience, we tend to give rudimentary training on aspects of the job such as till operation, and what jobs to do – replenishment, cleaning etc., but we forget about the importance of telling staff what to do.

This could include a list of occasions – greetings, general awareness of customers and body language, enquiries, sales opportunities, breakages, injuries, tills, departures and unavoidably complaints.

Training and coaching are important parts of the customer service plan, and within this we should all practice and encourage support, development of potential, motivation and on going improvement.

Your staff may have the skills and know-how to interact with your customers, but what organisational plans can you employ to please customers? For a start we should practice proactive customer service by making our customers happy before they come to us with problems. We need to encourage personal contact, we need to be available which means eyes and ears open, not lost in the job list from which a customer will be nothing more than a distraction and delay.

The above will require management to ensure there are sufficient numbers of staff available and that they have enough product knowledge to deal with enquiries.

There’s no substitution for knowledgeable, human, service.

Working In Customer Service

Ideally, everyone should feel empathy with customers, and to do this, understanding comes from experiencing and doing. Everyone in the organisation should experience what it's like to be a customer service team member.

One option is for those employed at a management level to first start by working in customer service. This will give them a greater appreciation of the work done by the customer service team.

The theory is that you can’t really manage a set of circumstances that you do not fully understand. By spending time in customer service, managers will relate to and appreciate the tasks performed by the team.

Businesses should invest heavily in measuring customer satisfaction over time and work to consistently give better service.

Assuming that the right people have been employed, and the necessary training has taken place, those involved in customer service should be empowered to serve the customer. They've been employed to do a job, so let them get on and do it.

Sometimes it can be hard to relinquish control as a manager or business owner. However, if you give your team the appropriate tools and guidelines they can succeed. Their success is your success.

We should all have processes in place for team members to follow. For instance, the authority to refund purchases of up to a value with no questions asked because sometimes the customer just wants their money back. If your team member can give that refund on their own without delay, the customer will have a better experience, which will hopefully translate to their return in the future.

For higher value returns, with clear processes, your team will know that they need a manager's approval to complete the transaction. Training should be about completing all steps in a friendly manner up to and including the involvement of management, so the customer will have a pleasant experience.

The goal is simply to provide the customer with the very best experience possible. Customers are not simply purchasing things.

Train your customer service team members in such a way that the customer has the best experience possible every time.

Customer Complaints Dept


There is a sad inevitability about the fact that, at some point on your journey, you will receive complaints.

The possibilities are endless and we as retailers can only do our very best to ensure that they are avoided but, and probably of greater importance, that if they do occur, we deal with them to the highest standard. Otherwise we will simply undo any good we may be trying to build through everything I have described so far.

I had an experience recently in a restaurant. I was with a group, and the menu had been selected by the organiser.

The first course was described as ceviche. What arrived was three large pieces of raw fish. I explained to the member of staff that I wasn’t happy with the dish. There is to my mind only one way to deal with this. Apologise, immediately take the plate away and replace it – if necessary, offering an alternative. Issue dealt with, no intrusion on the meal, happy customer.

What I received was a questioning member of staff, followed by a lecture from me on the dish. The plate remained, then another member of staff came to have the same conversation with me, the plate remained until everyone else’s were cleared, and it became the subject of conversation throughout the group and left all with a poor experience.

I would encourage all retailers to have a plan in place to deal with complaints as swiftly and efficiently as possible with the objective at all times to be customer satisfaction.

There are, of course, different 'types' of customer – those that don’t want to be a burden, some that can be aggressive and even chronic complainers. I also have constant debates about whether the customer is always right or not.

Now we know for a fact that the customer is not always, literally, right – but we are in the customer satisfaction business. The ability to swallow one’s pride and accept blame or negative feedback is crucial. Your team have got to keep the customer’s happiness in mind. Sadly, we may encounter the customer who is never happy, perhaps even not looking for a satisfactory response - even trying to get something for nothing.

We do however need a plan to deal with all eventualities. Language and tone are essential, as are responses. For example, “We’re sorry that you are having this problem” can be infuriating and is nothing more than the deferment of blame. Its best to just say sorry. Even when the customer is being unreasonable, apologise outright and ask how you might help resolve the issue.

Time is of the essence and in the case of an unhappy customer, a speedy response will benefit from the issue being resolved as soon as possible. Customers want to be treated with respect.

The day you stop talking to customers like regular people is the day you lose touch. After that, you start losing customers.

It is important to have a procedure; with efficient and professional ways to react, empowerment of staff to plan refunds, when to call for a more senior person, ensuring at all times that the complaint neither affects others nor holds up other customers.

If it merits it, why not follow up after a problem is solved and this might ensure your customers were satisfied with the service. Sending an email, or even a feedback survey is an excellent way to let the customer know you’re still on their side.

Customer Feedback

Customer Feedback

No matter how much you ask, you’ll never be able to deal with every issue.

To make sure you learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly experience your customers have, you could create an easily accessible way for customers to give feedback. Whether it’s a simple questionnaire or a form on the “Contact Us” page of your website, creating a means for customers to give feedback makes it easier for you to learn what needs improvement. It also helps keep unhappy customers from voicing their displeasure on highly visible places like TripAdvisor.

Checkout "Confessions of a Deli Owner from Fine Food Digest - July 2019"

Whatever steps you choose to take, remember that feedback is important to customer satisfaction. Not only will you discover areas that need improvement, but your customers will see that you are dedicated to providing better customer service.

Mystery Shopping

Finally, an independent audit of your customer experience can be worthwhile.

You may think you have everything covered, and even if you do, it can’t be a mistake to check. Some choose simply to ask others to comment.

Mystery Shoppers are however trained professionals and, for a price, will deliver detailed reports of a wide range of encounters and aspects of the retail journey.

It can be used to measure and monitor service performance and see if your standards are met. There is always a danger that managers become "shop blind" and might be so familiar that they miss things.

You can use mystery shoppers to get reliable, specific, and quality feedback from a customer point of view. This can help highlight specific areas for improvement.

You can consider what sales techniques are staff using. Do they sell actively or passively? How did the employee handle a customer complaint? Are your staff professional, have product knowledge and care about the customer? Did staff acknowledge the customer entering the store by smiling, greeting, or was the customer ignored? You can perhaps use incentives and rewards as part of a good mystery shopping introduction.

In summary, I can’t emphasise enough how the effects of poor service affect your business adversely.

It’s important to understand that a poor experience probably lingers longer in the mind than a good one, and that recollection may turn your customer away from revisiting a shop long after the first poor occasion.

And by the way, although your customers won’t love you if you give bad service, your competitors will.


Edward Berry

Edward Berry


Edward operates the Flying Fork, a food and retail advisory service for independent food retailers, farm shops, delis and food producers. He works closely with the Guild of Fine Food; judges Shop of the Year, Great Taste Awards and World Cheese Awards; has worked on projects for the Farm Retail Association (formerly FARMA); speaks on industry subjects; mentors at the Speciality Fine Food Fair and is a regular contributor to publications such as the Fine Food Digest.

Great minds think alike.

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