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For Better Vendor Service, Try Making a Friend

Do this to get the highest-quality service from your favorite vendors.

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How do I get better service from big vendors? Some companies will put me on hold for 20 minutes or ignore my requests for help.

Size matters, and it’s all about who you know. “The best way I know to get great service, no matter how large the company, is to make a friend on the inside,” advises Kate Peterson, the president of business consultancy Performance Concepts. “When you finally do make contact with that clerk, rep, service specialist, etc., take a few extra minutes and have a brief conversation. Listen, learn all you can, and keep notes. End your conversation with ‘You really have been terrific. Do you have a direct extension I can call next time? I would really rather deal with you.’” The next time you contact the company, Peterson advises, start with a friendly chat — not your issue. “You’ll be amazed at how quickly that person can get things done for you!” she says.


When dispensing an order, is it better to give a specific date or a time range it will be ready to avoid disappointing the customers?

A specific time is always preferable, but only if you can meet that deadline every single time. One of the things every business owner eventually learns is the importance of managing expectations. Promise 90-minute turnaround — even when everyone else in your market is doing three days — and your customers will be unhappy if they have to wait an extra 15 minutes. Several years ago, Zappos stopped promising free overnight shipping. The reason wasn’t cost or an inability to meet that promise. In fact, the company still ships almost every order overnight, but CEO Tony Hsieh wanted customers to be surprised when they got it the next day. As the saying goes, under promise and over deliver.


If an employee is consistently late for work (usually 30 minutes at a time), can I dock his pay?

From a legal standpoint, it typically depends whether he is a salaried or an hourly employee. If it’s the latter, he should be punching a clock, which will automatically deduct his time. If he is a salaried employee, you have to pay him, late or not, says Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, adding that you should, however, have the issue — and the consequences — covered in your employee manual. “If the employee’s tardiness is as constant as you say, you may need to make some tough and important decisions — such as “three strikes and you are out,” DeVries says. “It is never a good idea to let any one employee get away with such behavior. It sets a very bad example for those who are always on time — and you are setting yourself up to be accused of favoritism.”


I’ve discovered a shrinkage problem in my shop, but when I contacted the local police they didn’t seem interested.

When it comes to offenses that spur urgent police action, retail crime lags a long way behind murder, drugs or car theft. This means you’re going to have to show the police you have a good 60 56 case and, as Detective Richard Milburn of the Mesa Police Department in Arizona told the crowd at a recent National Retail Federation event, that you understand the difference between “probable cause” and “probably cuz.” Be sure you contact the right agency and that you can provide evidence, Milburn said. Be aware too that you may have to “re-sell” the case to another law enforcement agency if the first one declines. The key takeaway? Never forget that protecting your inventory starts with you and the processes you use to track and safeguard merchandise.


I carry two competing brands in a similar price range. Now one of them is implying I should drop the other slightly less popular brand or it will cut off supply. Is this legal?

There are some instances when you could take such a case to court and expect to win — such as when an unreasonable restraint of trade or similar antitrust violation can be established, or when a store’s ability to conduct business is damaged, for example, supply is cut off after you’ve invested heavily in marketing and training, and the brand accounts for a big portion of sales. But for the most part, these are exceptions; the law allows a miffed vendor to cut you off cold. “In general, companies in the U.S. are free to decide when to do business and when to stop doing business with another company,” says attorney Barbara Mandell, a member of Dykema Gossett PLLC, which focuses on antitrust law.


One of my salespeople has asked me to take on her 16-year-old son as an unpaid intern/sales assistant this summer. What are the legal ramifications of this?

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division has specific criteria governing unpaid intern programs. Among them:

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  • The internship is for the benefit of the student.
  • The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.
  • The intern cannot be guaranteed a job at the end of the training period.

If those conditions are not met, the intern is considered an employee and is entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

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Stop Setting SMART Goals, Set Vague Ones and More Questions for February

Plus how to handle suspected shoplifters and under-performing salespeople.

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After reviewing my sales team’s performance for the holiday season, I found I have one who underperformed hugely. She’s a lovely person but her numbers just don’t improve. Do we just persist with training?

It sounds like she has the right attitude and work ethic to succeed, just not in sales. Almost anyone can learn how to describe a product’s features (the knowledge), they can even learn how to ask the right open-ended questions to elicit a customer’s exact needs (a skill), but they’ll never learn how to push that prospect to get excited about a particular pair of glasses or a new vision technology and to commit at exactly the right moment. That is a talent some people just seem to be born with, says Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the play-to-people’s strengths school of business management. And besides, if she’s the worst performer in your store, she can’t be enjoying the work. It’s time to go your separate ways.

How do you suggest handling someone who is shoplifting in my store?

It’s good you’re asking; this is definitely an area where you do not want to be winging it, says Elie Ribacoff, president of New York-based Worldwide Security. Your policy on handling a suspected shoplifter should be part of your store or practice’s manual and developed in consultation with a qualified attorney, or local police to ensure laws are followed and that prosecution is effective. State laws vary but as a general rule suspicion is never enough — you need to observe the crime take place. As for confronting the person, there are obvious risks in confronting shoplifters. They may be violent, armed or working as part of a gang. And then there are the legal risks of trying to detain someone. As a general rule, it is nearly always better to be a good witness than to botch an arrest, says Ribacoff. Usually, the best approach is to have someone with a cellphone discreetly follow the shoplifter after he or she exits the store, and lead police to them.

Year after year, I set carefully plotted SMART goals for my staff, but we never attain them. Any idea what we’re doing wrong?

To the rational mind, it’s hard to argue with the S.M.A.R.T. mnemonic — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely — when it comes to goals. Except, of course, when it comes to managing humans, it’s best to be wary of anything that gives off the clinical odor of rationality. In the place of SMART goals, we thus propose an experiment for you: This year, try some Vague and Seemingly Irrelevant goals (yep, the sort of targets that can’t even be counted on to form a clever acronym). Clear goals such as “increase sales by 20 percent” can be motivating, but also set extra hurdles to fail at, which can throw the human mind into a tizzy. Vague goals, on the other hand, can be liberating.

As for “seemingly irrelevant,” the key word is the first: “seemingly.” This is management at a higher level. Identify the secret drivers to business success, be it the cheery baristas at Starbucks or the actions in your store that result in a positive review on social media, and you may actually get the specific financial results you desire. In his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman tells the story of a Formula One pit crew whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly,” rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster.

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Lifting Your Business Out of Mediocrity and More Questions for January

And how to share chores among staff to make sure they get done.

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I have two good candidates for the position of office manager, but I can’t decide between them. Can you suggest a tie-breaker?

Toss a coin and let fate be your arbiter. If they’re both equally appealing candidates and you can’t reduce the uncertainty by doing further research or interviews or trial runs, then your decision doesn’t much matter. That likely sounds like rash advice, but this paralysis you’re experiencing has a name: Fredkin’s Paradox. The computer scientist Edward Fredkin summed it up as, “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” To be sure, it will probably turn out to have mattered in hindsight, but by then it’ll be too late. Given that you’re unable to know how things will turn out, overthinking this one — or any similar tough choice — is futile.

How do you share the chores among staff fairly and in a way that is easy to enforce?

Store consultant David Geller feels he knows well the issues you’re facing. “Typically, we as store owners, when something isn’t done, pick our favorite person who is always willing to help to do what others should have done,” he says. “It’s not fair.” To create a system that IS fair, he suggests breaking your staff into groups and rotating the responsibilities. “Put some easy chores with some bad ones like vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom,” he says. The people whose names are under the different groups of chores (see table) do them for only one week, and then they move onto the next group of tasks. This shares around the bad and light chores and also makes it easy for the store owner to raise the issue when a job needs doing. “After doing this, I no longer need to complain to a person, I complain to a group,” Geller says.

Tell me, how do I lift my store out of the rut of mediocrity?

It’s said the toughest test of a manager is how they address lackluster performance. The reason is because it’s not so much about issuing dictates and drawing up policy as it is about fostering a culture that accepts nothing but excellence. Indeed, according to work by Brigham Young business school on high-performing teams, peers manage the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining standards. Counterintuitively, it is in mediocre teams that bosses must enforce standards and are the source of accountability. But how to get to that almost mythical land of self-enforced high standards? Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of Crucial Accountability, gives four leadership practices that can help: Start by showing the consequences of mediocrity, to connect people with the experiences, feelings, and impact of bad performance. Set clear goals and explain why they are important. “Use concrete measures to make poor performance painfully apparent,” says Grenny. Establish peer accountability so that people feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. And be quick to defend the high standards. A chronic poor performer is an impediment to your goals. How you handle this situation will let your team know whether your highest value is keeping the peace or pursuing performance. “When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress — one where they must stretch…where interpersonal conflicts must be addressed,” says Grenny. “If you shrink from or delay in addressing this issue … you send a message to everyone else about your values.”

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Promoting Healthy Competition and More Questions for Year’s End

Also, proper staff gift-giving etiquette and getting the most out of staff trainers.

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How do I tease out a prospective hire’s innate strengths and weaknesses during an interview?

Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the strengths-based school of business management, suggests asking this question (and revisiting it periodically if you do hire the person): What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months? “Find out what the person was doing and why he or she enjoyed it so much,” he says, adding it’s key to keep in mind that a strength is not merely something someone is good at. “It might be something they aren’t good at yet. It might be just a predilection, something they find so intrinsically satisfying that they look forward to doing it again and again and getting better at it over time.” The theory is that the best businesses are those that fully leverage the strengths (unbridled upside) of their employees as opposed to trying to fix up their weaknesses (never more than incremental gains).

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How can I promote competition among staff without it turning my store into the setting of Lord Of The Flies?

The key to fostering healthy competition, according to new research done by a team at Harvard Business School, lies in how you communicate the competition. When employees feel excited, they’re more likely to come up with creative solutions and new ways to better serve customers. When they feel anxious or worried they might lose their job or be publicly humiliated, they’re more likely to cut corners or sabotage one another. Leaders can generate excitement by highlighting the potential positive outcomes of competition (such as the recognition and rewards that await outstanding performers) rather than creating anxiety by singling out low performers (think of the steak knives scene in Glengarry Glen Ross).

What is proper etiquette for gift-giving in the workplace?

Your watchwords should be considerate, fair, and inclusive. Aim for gifts that can be shared and enjoyed by everyone such as food. (If people have diet restrictions, they can simply pass on the offering without making a big fuss.) If you do decide to give gifts to every staff member, steer clear of knick-knacks. Most people can barely see their desks as it is. The last thing they need is another coffee mug or pen-and-pencil set. Keep it clean. Do not consider gag gifts that rely on sexual innuendo or ethnic stereotypes to be funny. Do not give anything that could remotely be considered intimate. And be generous down the chain. Give your assistant or intern at least as nice a gift as the one you give your manager.

I’d like to hire a trainer for my staff, but I’m worried about the return on investment?

Our reason for existing at INVISION is to make ECPs better ECPs, and we believe professional trainers can help you enormously. To get your money’s worth, focus on two things: 1.) Hard skills. Overinvest in training that helps to increase ability versus motivation. Yes, it’s nice to have your staff leave a training session all fired up, but for lasting results that will give you that return on your investment, focus on small but vital aspects of your staff’s sales skills. It could be when to pause in a presentation or how many features to stress. Break tasks into discrete actions, practice within a low-risk environment and build in recovery strategies. 2.) This is just as important. Follow up. Bring in a trainer, but only if you yourself are willing to buy into their lessons and do ongoing training and reviews.

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