“Paper or Plastic?” Wrong Question.

I stopped by the market yesterday afternoon for a carton of milk, and chose the express line to pay for it; this would be a quick visit, but one with a good lesson ”“ those kinds of lessons you can get if you just pay attention to what’s going on around you.

There was just one woman in front me, unloading a few things from her basket to the conveyor belt, and as the cashier began to scan them the bagger asked her that all too familiar question, “Paper or plastic?”

She didn’t bother to hide the disappointment on her face when she looked up at him and answered, “Canvas” slipping the dangling bag off her arm and handing it to him to use instead.

“Paper or Plastic?” has been the wrong question for a long time now, yet it’s probably asked in that market hundreds of times a day.

There’s more: That market sells that canvas bag she handed to him. Sold for a dollar, it has their logo on both sides of it, and a rack full of them in three different colors sits between every two check-out stands. If you use it, the clerk gives you a dime credit on your purchase.

I hadn’t remembered to bring my own canvas bag with me, and to his credit, the bagger learned a quick lesson, for this time I saw him look me over first to see if I had one. But he didn’t change the question, and again he asked, “Paper or plastic?”

I did have a different answer though, and I said, “Neither one thanks, I can carry it without a bag.”

I have a very simple leadership challenge for you this week: Listen for all the wrong questions you’re still asking your customers. Wrong questions give terrible impressions, and we can do better.

Can we help each other out? What are the wrong questions you still hear in the businesses that you frequent?

Two related posts from the archives:

  1. Do you ask Good Questions?
  2. The Biggest Sin in Business Today

Comments

    • Rosa Say says

      I like your question better Fred, yet I must admit being bugged about having to go to the paper or plastic issue at all these days. Even if a company is not actively promoting greener practices, here is an opportunity to reuse and recycle in more creative ways (like Costco does, only offering up boxes which would be flattened and disposed of anyway) or bravely take a stand – offer reusable bags or none at all: If someone doesn’t have one, give them one and make up the cost in another way.

  1. says

    Probably, “Who helped you today?” when no one did. They were on the phone, or talking with each other and didn’t come over to help me at all. I prefer them asking me first if I would like help finding something and leave it up to me to decide if I just want to browse by myself.

    • Rosa Say says

      Oh Marisa, that is a good example. That’s one of those questions which is actually a thinly disguised statement: “We work on commission here, and I need to give credit where credit is due” when in the mind of the customer not much was actually earned in the first place.

      We need to be asking what we can do for the customer, and not for ourselves… you help me see the “Paper or plastic?” question in another way too: That is a question the bagger was asking for his own need – tell me what I need to do next.

  2. says

    Great example Rosa!

    It’s not a true question but I used to hear this all the time: “Let me know if you need any help, OK?”

    Doesn’t sound too bad until you learn that the people saying it had no intention of helping whatsoever. Unfortunately at this particular employer it was part of the culture :(

    Thanks again for the great article!

    Paul
    .-= Paul ´s last blog ..Defining Career Continuity =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      You make two great points Paul:

      1. Customers will wonder about our intentions when we ask them questions – perhaps we should start with intention, and then compose the question.
      2. Habits do become part of the culture, so we should intentionally shape them. The “paper or plastic?” question is one which came from an entire industry, and most market operators never bothered to intercept it.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion!

  3. says

    “How may I direct your call.”

    I usually don’t know how your company’s departments are set up or what they’re called. All I know is that I have a question. And hearing “How may I direct your call” right off the bat tells me that the person who answered the phone can’t answer my question, because his or her job is to pass me off to someone else as quickly as possible.

    It’s like having a barrier put up right away, on my first attempt to connect. A bit demoralizing.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Rosa!
    .-= Wendy Cholbi ´s last blog ..Introducing Open Office Hours! =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      Another great example Wendy, thank you for adding this one. Whereas “Paper or plastic?” is something the bagger likely heard and mimics on his own (I would hope), I fear that “How may I direct your call?” may actually be scripted at a ton of call centers – automatic pilot proliferated by trainers who do not feel they can mess with the curriculum, or don’t even think of doing so! Ugh.

      If they give you that feeling that “his or her job is to pass me off to someone else as quickly as possible” they are no better than automated voicemail, and maybe less so.

    • says

      Interesting point Wendy. My firm answers calls this way at our switchboard, but nowhere else, because the folks who call the switchboard often can NOT help with an answer…but can help in connecting you to anyone else. Our local offices don’t have this, but at corporate headquarters, where we take some 300 phone calls a day (many of which are for offices NOT in Milwaukee) it’s truly fastest for our receptionists to admit they CAN’T help…and quickly pass you to someone who can. Adding to this problem, we have 6 different business units with 2700+ associates, not to mention offices overseas. It would be impossible for them to actually HELP you, so I’m curious…Would “Who may I direct your call to?” help is that still not helpful?
      .-= Phil Gerbyshak ´s last blog ..Solutions Not Problems =-.

  4. says

    ARGH! I’m supposed to do this in a comment? This is practically a series of blog posts in the making here.

    Check out is the last point of contact of a customer at a store. It’s the last chance a store has to make an impression on the customer, and often the people behind the counter, heck, even some management, consider the job done if you’re in their line they did their job. They’re about to extract your money from you. BUT they can still mess things up and they don’t have my money yet.

    Annoying Question #1: Did you find everything today? If the answer is “no” and sometimes it is, I have NEVER had them offer anything other than condolences. They’ve never paged anybody, or offered to help me find it. When there’s a line I appreciate they’re thinking about the other customers, but if they have no intention of doing anything to fix it… why ask that question? If they’re told to then the trainers need to do part II of that question, the helping the customer who says “no” part.

    The most surprising thing I have started in my stores is if we don’t have what the customer is looking for and can’t get it. Sometimes it’s just not something we carry, the sales associate is supposed to, and does, help the customer find it. They’ll call competitors, give directions, and make sure the customer gets what they want, even if it’s not at my store. If the customer leaves happy, even if they’re leaving to go to another store… my crew has done their job. That customer will be back. I’ve never permanently lost a customer to this that I can tell. I’ve frequently had customer come back and thank me or the manager for the extra help the sales associate gave them.

    Another big habit to break my managers of is the preferential treatment they give “regular customers.” Oh… the good customers get… whatever it is. If we can afford to do it for regulars why don’t we treat new customers like regulars and give it to them? It’s not like they should have to pay their dues and be abused by us for a certain length of time before we start going the extra mile or giving the super secret discount with secret handshake. That’s crazy talk! Convert everybody that walks through the door to a regular customer as soon as you can… as in right away! Let them know right up front that you’re doing it to. Lean in, “We have a policy that we only do this for regular customers, and you look like you’re a regular customer in the making here’s the secret widget key that entitles you to fabulous gifts and prizes…” whatever. But TELL them that you look forward to seeing them again, and mean it.

    Don’t fake it. Don’t ever say it if you don’t mean it. Don’t EVER over-promise and under-deliver. As a manager, never EVER punish an employee for making a customer happy and fixing a broken customer relationship… even if they do it in a horribly expensive way. Seriously. The employee may need coaching but if they’re willing to help the customer, and fix the customer problem they’re a keeper! I give my managers a hundred dollars discretionary money (retail) that they can use to fix problems. Our cost is anywhere from 25-33 bucks. Seriously, who can’t afford to invest that in advertising? And all happy customers where we fix a problem well is advertising by word of mouth advertising… the best advertising money can buy!

    Sorry, I rambled. You said for me to talk about things I’ve done or heard done incorrectly recently… those are all things I’ve encountered recently in either one of my stores or one I’ve visited, but not all today thank goodness.
    .-= Rich G. ´s last blog ..Ender’s Game & Management? =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      You can do this in another post if you like Rich, for I love your storytelling write-ups, and you clearly have a wealth of experience to share with us!

      Maybe the question for managers is, “Where is your auto-pilot turned on?” and “What would happen ”“ what great things could happen ”“ if it was turned off?”

      I think that what this conversation is illustrating so well for all of us is the TON of opportunities which exist in all-too-common, every-day service transactions to kaizen them: Take them apart to see what can be improved upon. It doesn’t take that much to dazzle a customer in today’s sea of mediocrity.

      You remind me of an answer I once heard to that question, “Did you find everything okay?” in this same market I bought my milk in: This time it came from a construction worker paying for a hot lunch from the Deli, who obviously had just stopped in for that and nothing else. He answered, “Only if you sell cooks since my wife ain’t packing any lunches for me.” We all laughed, but you’re right, it was asked as a question without any forethought put into it.

  5. says

    My least favorite question: Can I ask you a question? I get this from all the various cell phone vendors in the mall, and I HATE this question.

    I usually respond “You just did” and keep walking. Leaves ’em speechless!

    On the phone, the wrong question is anything scripted out to the T. An example is when I call for my cable TV and they ALWAYS try to sell me on something when I just have a basic billing question. “Did you know about our special on…” Nope…and I don’t care. Pre-load the hold music with that and it’s great while I wait. A human asking me that? Not so much.

    But let’s turn this around and think about the GREAT questions folks ask instead.

    Here’s a few:

    How may I serve you?

    Would you mind waiting just a minute while I research that for you? And it really being just a minute or less. :)

    (restate the problem in your own words, and ask) Do I understand your problem correctly?
    .-= Phil Gerbyshak ´s last blog ..Solutions Not Problems =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      For sure Phil, the questions we ask others shouldn’t irritate them! Scripting does seem to have that effect more often than not.

      Gotta say that I’ve always felt sorry for those mall kiosk vendors… they seem to have so much going against them. Their visual merchandising has to grab me or they haven’t any other opening with me at all. I think their best shot is not a question, but extending a very sincere greeting – a hello of the utmost in nonthreatening Aloha.

      Thank you for those good questions you suggest! You also make a very good point about turning scripting into better decisions on telephone recording time versus real-voice interactions.

  6. says

    On the subject of the grocery-store checkout folks who ask if you found everything OK: Trader Joe’s is my favorite grocery store (not sure if they have them in Hawaii or Wisconsin). One of the many reasons for my love for them is that when they ask this question, they follow through.

    Once, when I mentioned to the checker they were out of my favorite cinnamon bread, he sent someone to the back to pluck a loaf straight from a just-being-unloaded delivery truck. Another time they had cases of a certain sauce in the back that hadn’t been shelved yet (and they fetched one for me). Once or twice they didn’t have the item in question, but were able to tell me that they were expecting a shipment the next day.

    So now, I believe them when they ask the question. They’ve earned my trust by taking what could be a throwaway question and turning it into a great experience.

    As for the question of receptionists answering phones with “how may I direct your call,” my beef with this is that the question is for the company’s benefit, not mine.

    I get that big companies handle thousands of calls and that the receptionists actually can’t provide every level of customer service. I guess maybe it’s the phrasing that bugs me. If they simply asked “how can I help you?” or maybe “What’s the reason for your call today?” it wouldn’t put me on the spot with trying to come up with the right department or person.

    I don’t like automated voicemail trees, but if the receptionist is performing a function that could be handled by a recorded list of departments, then her time is probably being wasted. If a human answers the phone, I guess I just want a little more help (like being able to ask my question and getting a comforting “Oh, Bill in accounting is our expert on those questions. Let me get him on the line for you”).

    And I love your suggestion, Phil, for coming up with Great Questions. I like it when people ask me at the end of a phone call if there’s anything else they can answer for me, and it sounds sincere. And I agree with “How may I serve you” and its cousin “How may I help you?”

    But sincerity is the key.
    .-= Wendy Cholbi ´s last blog ..Introducing Open Office Hours! =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      Wendy and Rich, you really have me thinking about the opportunity in that “Did you find everything today?” question now: Even if a customer wants to say “No, I didn’t” they will often respond with “yeah, thanks” just to expedite things and not be the cause of holding up a line. Can you imagine the huge service “Wow!” if store runners intercepted customers at the end of lines with the question instead, getting whatever they’d been missing before they are ready to pay?

      This entire conversation really begs this question of when we get complacent about the simple day-to-day happenings in the workplace, missing the opportunities they present to us.

      Wendy, your comment about voicemail is evolutionary too: Most of us will say that we hate voicemail period, and we prefer to talk to “real people” but the truth of the matter is that we want it to make sense and today, certain efficiencies being automated versus being personal do make sense to us.

      Thank you so much for returning to add to the conversation.

  7. says

    This is going to wind up being a blog post. I can feel it in my bones. :)

    That being said, why wait for them to be in line? I was at Hy-Vee, a local employee-owned grocery store where I do an awful lot of shopping and while in the produce section the person stocking the peppers asked me as I walked past staring at the produce if there was something they could help me find. (This is normal.)

    I said I was wanting a papaya and did they have any. (This is NOT normal as I’ve never asked for a papaya before.)

    They did not have any papayas she said, and this is where it went into twilight zone territory, “But, I can order them for you if you like. When do you need them by?”

    “Oh no. I don’t need THAT many, I just don’t think I’ve ever had one before. I just wanted one.”

    “No problem!” Says she, “someone will buy the rest. I can order you for them tonight and have them by…” She wasn’t a manager or anything. Her name tag said “Monica” and under that it said “First Year Employee” Now, other name tags say things like 5 year or 20 year employee… hers said “First Year.” The assumption there is huge and awesome. Her helpfulness was amazing. That wasn’t unique to her either.

    On another visit I asked at the meat department (seafood really) if they had any crab fingers. I wanted them for gumbo and I thought I’d seen them there before but they were out now. “We don’t normally carry those, but I can order them, and what you saw last time was probably the extra we ordered to fill out an order. When would you like them by?” Again… floored. Again, not a manager. This was “just” a counter jockey putting in their time… only it wasn’t that at all. They were intent on getting me what I wanted, even if they had to special order it and they were positive that they’d sell the rest of my order to someone else, and even if they didn’t… they’d have made me happy. That’s why I go there, and that’s why I shop there.

    They don’t ask questions they don’t want to hear the answers to.
    .-= Rich G. ´s last blog ..Ender’s Game & Management? =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      I kid you not Rich, I am reading this as I have some breakfast food for my lunch working at home today: Papaya with yogurt and granola… you seriously have never had a papaya? I hope you placed that order…

      I think this is your money quote this time: “They don’t ask questions they don’t want to hear the answers to.”

      And yeah – I said “this time.” Write the post :-)

      • Rosa Say says

        Rich, going back and reading your comment again, “employee-owned” jumped out at me about Hy-Vee. Time and time again that seems to make such a big difference. We’ve got to replace entitlement and putting in time with ownership and/or co-authorship.

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