Three years ago, the staff at the Iowa State University Bookstore adopted a new strategy striving for “Excellence in Customer Service.” After evaluating their approach to the unique challenge of a store with a great deal of floor space, a large, diverse inventory and a broad range of different types of customers, they came up with a new platform for expectation for all UBS staff members.
Initially inspired by a program at The Duck Store, Customer Service Supervisor Sue Kessel adapted what she’d witnessed there into GIFT, a systematic approach to personalized customer interaction.
“The main reason we developed the GIFT program is because we do have such an array of customers, including the student body, parents and families, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the community,” Kessel said. “We also have a very large store with a wide range of products. GIFT ensures that no matter who our customers are or what they’re shopping for, everyone experiences the same level of excellent service.”
GIFT (“Greet, Inquire and Inform, Finish the Details, Thank the Guest”) is now an integral part of every aspect of the store’s customer service policy. Together with Customer Service Coordinator Stasia Whited, Kessel has shaped the program into one that fits their store’s unique dynamic. And while it’s taken a couple of years to fully catch on, she says it’s universally understood that everyone is expected to put it into practice, from the most senior staff members to the newest recruits.
Their starting place is with the interview — which they rewrote to reflect GIFT and to make sure they were asking the right questions when hiring associates who would work well with the program.
“We hire for attitude and train for skill,” Kessel said. “GIFT is also talked about throughout orientation and day one training. Before new hires fold a T-shirt or straighten merchandise, they are being coached on these principles.”
In addition to extensive training, another key component behind the program’s success is the concept of zoning. Each department is split into sections in order to provide excellence in service, security and maintenance of each area.
“The goal of zoning is every area of the store has someone that is present and helpful,” Kessel said. “Because the store is so large, that means that a customer may interact with several different employees while they shop — and that’s fine; as long as everyone is doing at least one step of GIFT at all times, they’re doing their jobs.”
The store utilizes Lead Students, who help serve as examples for what GIFT looks like on the sales floor, as well as acting as liaisons to managers and department heads. These positions are highly sought after, according to Kessel, and not just for the increase in pay that accompanies them.
“Turnover tends to be small for Lead Students. Last time we had an opening, 10 employees applied for it. That made me really happy, because it demonstrated that we had that many people interested in taking a leadership role.”
Kessel also credits the success of the program to its built-in incentives, which take the form of weekly praise, monthly praise and yearly praise. "Taking your store’s customer service to a higher level does not mean you have to increase your payroll. Most of our rewards come in the form of praise.”
Weekly rewards include thank-you notes (any employee can give or receive these) and prizes of candy bars or chips, which are awarded to those who write and receive the most notes for that week.
“We end up with a stack of about 50 or 60 thank-you notes a week, and I personally read them all,” she said. “That helps me get to know my people, to keep track of who’s excelling and how, and learn who may need more motivation.”
The “Way to Go” award recipient is drawn from a pool of nominations made by managers and supervisors. The winner gets to wear a button reading “I Radiate Pure Awesome” and the chance to be entered into a monthly drawing for a free lunch.
“A lot of our rewards are food-based,” Kessel said. “We’ve found that most students respond really well to incentives they can eat.”
Monthly incentives are an Employee of the Month award and Greeter of the Month, who is also eligible to win a $25-50 care package.
And once a year, the store treats all staff members to an Employee Appreciation lunch. During the summer, they organize a Summer Team Night Out, with food, fun and team-building activities.
While Kessel thinks that implementing something like the GIFT program could benefit any college store, she emphasizes the importance of adapting it to fit the individual store’s circumstances.
“Any store could use what we’ve developed as a jumping-off point, but Stasia and I treat it as a living document,” she said. “We’ve tweaked and adapted it over the years — you’ll have to shape it to fit what will work for you.”
If you’d like to learn more about GIFT or view any of the store’s hiring or training materials, please contact Sue Kessel at firstname.lastname@example.org.