As an army brat, I grew up overseas, unlike my Louisiana-born-and-raised parents and extended family. While I may not have grown up in their southern culture, my parents made one thing abundantly clear when it came to southern hospitality: Always be a good hostess.
That’s our job in retail, really — to be good hostesses and hosts. Otherwise, our guests aren’t going to feel at home enough to look around and enjoy themselves. That’s what they come to our garden centers to do, you know — to have a good time. Ultimately, devoted garden center shoppers are looking for their “happy place.” Happy places aren’t staffed with rude employees or snotty botanists.
As a garden center manager or owner, you may not have thought teaching manners was going to be part of your job, but it is. Everyone is raised differently. Some employees will come to you with an adequate set of manners and an air of professionalism while others arrive as a blank slate. In a retail operation, manners and value systems need to be balanced across the board and reflect company goals for a predetermined customer experience. If you don’t teach your staff the manners you expect them to employ, your customers will pay the price and, ultimately, so will you.
Age is also a factor in etiquette knowledge and expectations. Younger employees raised in the digital age often don’t arrive at work with the same comportment and boundaries that more mature employees do. While texting or talking on a cell phone in front of customers, refusing to look up from a computer screen when a new customer walks in the door, or continuing a personal conversation as customers are waiting are all obvious no-no’s to you, your younger employees may not realize how rude their actions appear. You must both tell them directly and show them by example acceptable behaviors to model. It’s not always about the big things; small actions matter, too. If you don’t put your cell phone down in staff meetings, don’t expect your employees to do so in front of customers. If they see you venting about customers online, you’ve given them a permission slip to do the same.
As a niche industry filled with technical specialists, green industry members also have the frequent habit of focusing too much on our own personal passion (the plants), without giving equal quarter to the sales and customer service experience. To our customers, doing business with us is not just about the plants and knowledge we can provide — it’s also about how we make them feel while they’re visiting. Bad manners in the store or online can ruin their horticultural high, and talking down to customers about knowledge that seems commonplace to plant experts falls into the poor hosting category.
Lest you think I’m suggesting that you dumb down gardening for your customers, I’m not. I merely suggest that respectful, clear communication, tailored to each customer’s level of knowledge, is required. The trick is to assert your credentials, inspire confidence in your customers, and then make sure they enjoy learning from you.
Unfortunately, bad manners aren’t confined to the brick and mortar store any longer. Nowadays, they bleed into your online presence, as well. Have you noticed your employees complaining online about your garden center customers? I’ve found them doing it and, I must say, I’m aghast at what I’ve read. For those raised on social media, it may seem perfectly normal to vent about work frustrations online. We all need to blow off steam about work from time to time, but not online. When you or your employees make negative comments that directly reference your business or your customers, that’s crossing a professional line.
I’ll be straight with you. If, as a garden center employee — or an owner, for that matter — you find yourself often frustrated with garden center customers, I suggest you consider a new line of work.
I waited tables for a couple of years in college. To this day, it was one of my favorite early jobs. I worked hard at it and was always so happy to help my customers — even the difficult ones.
When customers asked me why I was so happy and positive, I’d tell them honestly that I loved my job. If you have employees who are happy in their jobs, your customers will benefit from their positive attitude. If you have employees who don’t like their jobs, your customers will suffer.
Modern manners and professionalism in retail ultimately come down to the art of performance: learning how to turn off your personal persona and turn on your public one when you’re on the clock. Selling yourself, whether it be to your boss or your customer, is a required part of any profession. Loving plants or having a passion for horticulture doesn’t absolve you of that responsibility.
Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com