In most primary school classrooms around the world, the teacher asks a question and you see a number of hands shooting up. The teacher picks the first child to answer, and if he doesn’t get it right, then the other kids urgently wave their hands and click their fingers, and shout, “Me! Me! Please pick me!” until the right answer comes up. I love that enthusiasm to answer the teacher’s question or to be picked to do something, but it seems that it mostly disappears when our children become teenagers.


What does a classroom of 10-year olds have to do with business? Have you noticed how in most businesses where customers have to wait, that the customer service people have a great tactic for ignoring you? They seem to have perfected it to an art, and it involves completely ignoring you if possible. But it can’t be obvious, or you will become very angry, so they sort of pretend that there is something else occupying them, and look everywhere else except at you personally. It doesn’t matter if there are five of them and only one of you: it’s like a game – to see who can avoid the customer best.


If you are very lucky, the business will have some semblance of a queuing system in which the next customer in turn gets served. Occasionally someone will say, “Next customer please,” or there may be one of those little light boards with a message about which counter to go to next. It’s quite infuriating when you can see someone is free but they don’t press the button, or when you need to weigh something but the person is too busy packing cauliflowers.


I still hope for a miracle. One day I’m going to walk into a bank or a supermarket and there will be six people enthusiastically shouting, “Me! Me! Please pick me! I’m the best there is here!” Or maybe the call-centre agent answers immediately and with gusto, and says, Ï am so lucky you called me today!” Yeah, dream on.


These days, doing what we did last year is just not enough. I remember when the first bank manager arranged a few poles and a rope, and made customers take their turn without having to randomly pick a queue, I was delighted! “Wow! They aren’t going to serve some idiot who came in after me!”


Today I take this for granted, and, in fact, I tend to get really irritated when I don’t see this simple system in place. (Did you hear that, fast food joints?)


But I’m not just talking about queues in this article: I’m talking about all customer touch points, where we first have to notice what they want and/or how they feel, and then respond to that in a way which surprises them. Here’s an example: The supermarket my family shops from in Johannesburg, (which is one of a large group of grocers that are mostly individually owned,) regularly experiences power failures – more so during the last December holidays. In most businesses they shut the doors immediately, to stop customers from stealing stuff, and then you have to dump your stuff without paying because the tills aren’t working.


Not at Max’s store. The first thing that happens is that most of the employees grab a torch and a high-visibility reflective waistcoat – and then take customers individually through the store working through the shopping list helping the customers find what they need. They then escort the customer politely to the tills and move on to help the next customer. All the tills have a battery back-up until the generator kicks in, so the transactions don’t have to be re-started and the customers delayed.


On one occasion it was raining heavily outside, and once again the employees were there with massive umbrellas to escort customers with their shopping to their cars. I’ve heard that they will deliver groceries to your house in an emergency, that one day they opened the store well after closing time since a customer called them because she decided to throw a matric-results party at the last minute, and that they sent the bakery staff to a customer’s house to decorate a birthday cake which the customer had forgotten to arrange. All of these, and other legendary stories of great service, were done for free.


I am delighted to tell you that Max and his partner recently purchased a second store in the same brand.


How can you create the same spirit and energy in your business? It’s not about the brand and the store layout, nor even about the stock availability. (These are given.) It is about the people.


First, you and your managers have to completely and utterly believe that great service experiences are worthwhile, and that there is a good return on all your efforts. (At another differently-owned store in the same group, and literally 7km. down the road, the managers are surly, treat the staff poorly, and seem disdainful of customers. Funny thing is, they never seem to be full.)


But if you believe that your delighted customers are the key to your success, you will find the time and energy to focus on them, rather than sit in your office negotiating with suppliers or doing your paperwork. You will be out there, talking to customers and getting to know them, understanding their needs, and making sure that everything is just perfect for them. When they leave your store they will walk out with a smile on their face, and their day will be just a little bit better than when they first walked in.


You will spend time chatting with your team, inspiring and motivating them to be the best they can be, and being an example of how they must behave towards customers. You will explain how you want things done, and give them a chance to tell you what they think. You will coach and train them in all the things that you have learned, and praise them for what they do well. You will be the source of their smiles and happiness so that they would not dream of upsetting customers or moving to another job.


And maybe, with a bit of luck, they will see a customer walking into your store and say, “Me! Me! Please pick me to help you today!”