What does running a supermarket have in common with running an elementary school, Safeway Manager Dan Dillon wondered aloud recently inside Julia Randall Elementary School.
“The answer is nothing,” he said as everyone in the room started laughing. The joke was partially true, despite Dillon’s presence to connect the two seemingly disparate endeavors.
“Both are businesses,” Dillon continued. Each needs to attract customers. Schools must retain students, who could enroll in an online school or an alternative school or receive homeschooling.
A successful business must welcome people with a clean and attractive building. To improve first impressions, Dillon suggested that JRE post more signs to direct people to the main office, classrooms, etc.
He also noted the building’s “beautiful white walls that kids would love to paint on” so they would cease to create a museum-like atmosphere. Guests should feel comfortable, Dillon said.
JRE Principal Rob Varner said he invited Dillon to speak because of Safeway’s “world-renown” customer service. The school board has chosen the category as an area of importance. “It’s an area that we can always use some improvement,” said Varner, although he said the school fares well overall.
Customer service training can help staffers’ interactions with each other, students and parents, Varner said.
One teacher said she thought parents needed more recognition, and wished they were more involved.
Dillon said the school should make sure parents feel invited.
Varner said the major factor in parents avoiding involvement is the parent’s own classroom experiences, or how a teacher treated the parent.
Twenty percent of students are academically at-risk, and Varner said that same statistic applies to parents.
Besides encouragement, customer service training could help teachers when dealing with aggressive parents, said Varner. A natural reaction is to grow defensive, but people can train themselves to stay calm.
At Safeway, employees talk service every day, said Dillon.
“Attitude is huge,” he said. “Nobody can make you feel any way. You chose to be angry because of the situation you were presented with.”
Recognition is also important for customer service — especially colleague-to-colleague recognition. Teachers should congratulate their fellow teachers for good deeds and exceptional work, Dillon said.
One teacher said that sometimes colleagues tell a third colleague about good work another teacher did. Teachers should tell the source, the teacher said.
“It’s always the bad rumors that get back, not the good ones,” agreed Dillon.
“A pat on the back is sometimes as good as money,” he added.
Dillon advised a five-to-one rule — for every bad thing you must break to someone, tell him five good things first. If a person hears the bad news first, he’ll close his ears to the rest.
Dillon said he talks almost every day about service. His employees grow tired of listening to him, he said. But when a fellow employee talks about service, everybody listens. It means more and builds a culture of service.
Payson’s Safeway employs 118. Because of the store’s extended hours, Dillon hasn’t seen some employees in months. And so, he relies on the entire crew to relate the customer service ideals to other employees. In that instance, building a culture of high standards is key.
To make sure no long lines form at the cash register, Dillon cross-trains people so that people besides cashiers can ring up customers.
“I don’t know how cross-training goes in a school system,” Dillon said. “You guys can help each other solve your problems.”
And when a problem arises, Dillon said he gives his employees the autonomy to fix things.
“Please don’t give away the farm,” Dillon said he tells workers. “But take care of that customer.” He continued, “there’s always a way to say, ‘Yes.’” Although customers don’t always get what they want, Dillon said he tries to compromise and find something that will make them happy.