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Treat Customers as Guests

Knowing that its trial customers are seeking new information, Wild Oats Markets considers and treats its clientele as special "guests."

April 26, 2001
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Basic Skills Training
In 1987, a husband-and-wife team, Mike Gilliland and Libby Cook, opened theirfirst vegetarian health food store in Boulder, Colorado. In 13 years, Wild OatsMarkets has grown into a natural-foods supermarket chain in North America, with110 stores in 22 states and British Columbia. The company now operates itsstores under a family of trade names, including Wild Oats Community Markets,Alfalfa's Markets, Capers Markets, Oasis Fine Foods, and Sunshine Grocery.

Name:Wild OatsMarkets, Inc
Type of business:Chain ofnatural food markets
Numberof Employees:7,500

    Wild Oats Markets attracts two types of customers, says Cynthia Baxter, vicepresident of training and development. First are the traditionalists -- those whohave purchased and eaten organic foods for years. They're the ones who shudderat the thought of shopping at conventional grocery stores. The other majorcustomers are those she describes as "trial people." They areinterested in organic foods but are not necessarily avid fans of wheat germ,hummus, or alfalfa sprouts. "They like the taste and quality of many of ourproducts and the convenience of our deli," Baxter says. "They'rewilling to give us a trial. If we take good care of them, they'll comeback."

    Wild Oats Markets, she says, always has been committed to customer-servicetraining. In the past, however, it's been hit or miss. Employees were givenbasic customer-service orientation on how to smile, be polite, and assist anddirect shoppers to the right aisles. But these days, customers have numerousquestions about health products they know nothing about: "What arehomeopathic remedies for sinusitis?" "What harmful ingredients shouldI avoid in a shampoo?" "What is the difference between tempeh andtofu?"

    Knowing that its trial customers are seeking new information, Wild OatsMarkets considers and treats its clientele as special "guests.""Our founder and former CEO Mike Gilliland is very community-oriented. Hispoint of view is that people who come to our store are our friends. We need tohelp them make choices when it comes to the food they're eating and to thehomeopathic remedies," Baxter says.

    One of her main customer-service training goals, therefore, is to enableemployees to be knowledgeable about the store's products. In preparation for thegrand opening of a flagship store in Irvine, California, managers and employeesunderwent a two-hour orientation. Not only were they introduced to the historyof Wild Oats Markets, but they also role-played various problem-solvingsituations.

    In the past, health foods customers knew their store clerks, Baxter says.They could depend on their knowledge of organic food products and homeopathicremedies. With Generation X employees, customer-service training has includednot only the basics of social greetings but also an introduction to myriad newfood products. New employees were encouraged to read about various healthproducts and taste as many food samples as possible.

    "We're not able to get people who are as passionate about health foodsas in the past," Baxter says. "We have to take our [new, young]employees and make them passionate about natural foods and our guests."

    When employees are unable to answer a guest's questions, they refer thecustomer to the store's "concierge." This newly created position wasfirst tested in the Irvine store, which opened in March. Sue Fruhwirth was hiredfor the position. She says the company founder and store director have given hergreat leeway in developing her job description.

    Many customers come to her with specific questions about product ingredients,she says. Others want to know, for example, when and if the store will sponsorclasses on solar energy. If a customer has a complaint about a product orservice, she often handles those issues as well. "I basically can doanything that improves customer satisfaction," she says, "even if itmeans driving to one of our other stores to pick up a special product."

    In order to train for her unique position, Fruhwirth has worked in everystore department. A former employee at the Wild Oats Community Market in LagunaBeach, California, she knows her produce, meats, baked goods, and deli foods andis familiar with the products in the store's natural living aisles.

    "I work closely with the managers of every department. So when I spotcustomer trends, I can alert them early on," she says.

    At Wild Oats Markets, guests rule -- and graze.

Workforce, May 2001, pp. 86-88-- Subscribe Now!

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