I spent the summers of my college years on the coast of South Carolina as a waitress. I learned a variety of skills including how to balance and carry out five steak platters on my arm, how to gracefully dive under a table to retrieve a baked potato when it rolls onto a customer’s shoe, and how to pacify a table of anxious, hungry diners who have already waited 30 minutes for their meal when I’ve just been advised by the kitchen that their order ticket is missing.

Sure, there were some hair-raising times, but for the most part, I loved every minute I spent waiting tables. Why? Because it was a fast-paced, customer-intensive job that provided instant gratification (by way of tips and smiling faces) when the customer experience was well delivered. Perhaps my biggest education was learning the art of the “customer dance” – recognizing when to lead the customer and when to follow. Over time, I learned to pick up subtle signals that helped clarify the customer experience I needed to deliver. Were they there to eat and run? Did they want to linger over coffee and dessert? Were small kids at the table in need of a fun distraction? I watched for the customer clues and then tailored my services accordingly.

Ace Hardware has taken the delicate dance of “lead and follow” to a whole new level with its addition of “customer quarterback” positions in its 4,600 U.S. stores. This technique was born out of the $3.8 billion hardware cooperative’s year-long initiative of analyzing ways to best serve customers, during busy stores times, without adding extra staffers. When store traffic is heavy at the Cape Coral, Florida store, for example, customer coordinator, Linda Gillard, gears up to “call the play.” She talks to incoming shoppers, analyzes their body language and then alerts store staff on how to best serve them: Mission shopper with no time for small talk? Browser? Shopper gearing up for a big project? Gillard makes the assessment and then, using an earpiece, radios ahead to staff so they are ready in the aisle to help, when the customer arrives. Gillard knows the danger of too much contact too early and is quick to warn the team, “Browser entering Housewares. No immediate assistance needed. Give them at least 5 to 10 minutes before you approach.”

Loyalty Lesson: Customers come to us with a mindset shaped by a host of factors. We must learn to read their clues and then sculpt our service delivery accordingly. Often times, this will invove a number of staff members. That’s why systems, such as the one Ace Hardware mobilized, provide important pathways for helping frontliners “lead” and “follow” in the all-important customer dance.

Now, about that baked potato that landed on my customer’s shoe…

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