Harper Grey: A Tale of Two Teenagers


The Savvy Shopper - Harper Grey

If you own a small business in the retail or fast-food sectors, odds are you have a bunch of teenagers working for you. This can be a really great gig for both you and them. They’re working their first jobs ever and you can feel fabulous about your part in the shaping of young minds and skill-building of the leaders of tomorrow. And they’re cheap labor. But hiring teenagers may require some extra hands-on training.

I had two jobs as a teenager. My first job was at a clothing store in the mall where the owner, who had an MBA, handed me a 150 page manual full of company policies and procedures. Later, I worked at a hip music store where the owner spent every afternoon in the back office, smoking pot and listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clearly the managerial styles were vastly different but both managers spent lots of time with me, teaching me how to provide their customers with friendly, knowledgeable service.

I remember what it was like to have a job in high school. How it felt to miss the senior ski trip when I couldn’t get the day off. How I had to stay up late doing homework after work. How much my feet hurt after working all day Saturday. So I sympathize with the teenagers that are running your stores every afternoon instead of hanging out with their friends. But as a customer, I still expect them to provide me with good service. Sometimes that happens; sometimes it doesn’t. Last week I visited two drive-through windows and had two very different experiences with teenagers.

Saturday morning I visited the drive-through of my local coffee shop. Usually the service is fast and efficient but that morning there was a long line of cars waiting. I watched as the kid working the window leaned out and chatted with customers before handing them their drinks. At first I was annoyed, assuming he was talking to friends. It was almost ten minutes before I got to the window and I was pretty grouchy by that time (it probably didn’t help that I hadn’t had my coffee yet). As I handed Josh (1) my money, he explained that he was so sorry for the delay but their second espresso machine was broken and the barista was working as fast as she could with only one machine. Instead of closing the window while he waited for my mocha, he stood there and chatted with me. How was my day? Was I doing anything fun? Josh was cheerful and friendly and seemed happy to be there (he’d also probably had three or four espresso shots, but still). By the time my order was ready, my mood had completely turned around and I left the coffee shop having forgotten all about my long wait.

A few days later I pulled into a fast food drive-through and ordered my daughter a chocolate-banana shake. The cashier (we’ll call her Shake Girl) (2) said something in reply but the speaker was broken and all I could hear through the static was mwa mwa mwa…mwa mwa… I pulled up to the window and asked, “How much do I owe you?” Shake Girl rolled her eyes and sighed, as if I was the biggest idiot she’d dealt with all day. “Like I just told you, it’s $3.10.” I handed her my money and she slammed the window shut. As I waited, I watched her through the glass, texting on her cell phone. Another employee came up and handed her the shake, which she sat on the counter while she finished her text. Then she shoved the shake out the window at me without a word and closed the window again. As I handed it to my daughter, I saw that it was a banana shake, not chocolate banana. I rolled my window back down and waited for Shake Girl to notice me (she was still texting). Finally she opened the window and spat, “What now?” I explained that what she gave me wasn’t what I ordered. “You said a banana shake.” She rolled her eyes again, took the shake from me and walked away, presumably to correct my order. Five minutes later she came back, handed me a chocolate banana shake and slammed the window closed again. I figured that asking for a napkin was out of the question at that point.

Research shows that happy customers spend more money, which shouldn’t really be much of a surprise but the academics at the University of Virginia actually proved it with statistics. Participants in their study were asked to evaluate how well employees provided customer service on a scale of one-to-seven and found that the amount of money spent directly correlated with their perception of the service received:

a one-point increase on the customer evaluations seven-point scale (raising it from 4.05 to 5.05) is associated with a $12.79 increase in ACTV (average customer transaction value), holding all other predictors constant at their mean levels. This represents a 15% increase in customer spending per visit. Further, this same one-point increase in customer evaluations is associated with a 5.37% increase in CSG (comparable store sales growth), holding all other predictors including ACTV) constant at their mean levels. This effectively represents a 16% increase in store sales growth (27.85% to 34.22%) in one year’s time, highlighting the importance of maximizing customer affect and intentions.” (3)

Unfortunately, poor service has an even bigger impact. A Wharton study showed that 31 percent of dissatisfied customers related their tales of woe to friends and family, who were paying attention– half the people surveyed stated that they would avoid a store based on the negative experience of a friend or family member.(4) So, you’re not just losing the dissatisfied customers–you’re losing some of their friends, too.

The bottom line is this: you can’t afford to have employees with poor customer service skills working for you. And if you’re hiring teenagers, it’s your responsibility to train them.

Teenagers are new to the world of work and they’re not necessarily accustomed to thinking about other people’s needs. They have a lot more to worry about than your customers. They worry that the cute boy who just walked in is noticing that they’re wearing a polyester uniform. They worry about tomorrow’s chemistry test. They worry about zits. They can be vain and immature and sometimes lazy.

But… they also have a bunch of characteristics that can make them great employees. Teenagers can be energetic and bubbly and eager to learn. They’re excited to be earning their first paychecks and proud of their new skills. They’re fresh and naïve and haven’t yet been beaten down by the world of bills and responsibilities. They just need to be shown how to do their jobs successfully.

Don’t assume that your teenaged employees know how to interact with adults. They spend their days texting friends rather than communicating in person. They might not have a lot of contact with adults other than their parents, who are obviously old and uncool. Maybe talking to adults makes them nervous. Or maybe they think they know more than adults. Or maybe both. Tell them that it’s ok to make mistakes. That sometimes things will go wrong. That there will be times when they’ll be flustered or tired or the equipment will break. And that’s ok, as long as they remember to be friendly to your customers.

So, hire those teenagers. Take them in hand and show them how it’s done. Provide them with mentors and foster the kind of working environment that encourages them to shine. Your customers will be enchanted with your bubbly, adorable staff and you’ll be thrilled with the profits you generate by providing great service.

(1) That’s what his name tag said, so I assume that was his real name, which I am using here since he was so awesome.
(2) Clearly, not her real name.
(3) Maxham et al; Linking Employee Perceptions to Employee Performance, Customer Evaluations, and Store Performance” Marketing Science 2008.
(4) [email protected]; “Beware of Dissatisfied Customers: They Like to Blab” March, 2006.