Comparing (Rotten) Apples and (Sunny) Oranges

I used to get my hair cut at an old barber shop across the street from where I lived in New York City. It was a narrow sliver of a shop with 5 chairs facing 5 mirrors and a long bench for waiting customers behind them. The woman who worked at the middle chair was a stern Eastern European lady who was in a habitual foul mood. She constantly barked at the other barbers or muttered complaints about them, even though they were only three feet away. I once commented on her absence and my barber, also from Eastern Europe said, “Yes, is much nicer when Chernobyl not here.”

Indeed, ‘Chernobyl’ created such a negative vibe in the entire shop that I often dreaded going there. I eventually decided to look for a new place to get my haircut.

One rotten apple had soured me on a whole barrel of barbers.

Several months later, I walked into a haircut shop on 14th street in New York City. Now, any New Yorker can tell you that most of the shops on 14th street are not exactly known for their customer service, so my expectations were low. Coincidently, the woman behind the counter was also Eastern European. She flashed me a radiant smile, told me the wait would only be a few minutes and asked me to have a seat. Then she excused herself and got to work sweeping hair.

Every time she passed a waiting customer she looked up and flashed them a huge smile and chatted with them if they were regulars. As she swept around each of the chairs, she also made sure to smile at the person cutting hair, who always acknowledged her with a pleasant nod.

After my haircut, she put aside her broom and rushed to the front counter to take my payment. She flashed another smile, complimented me on the haircut and asked if I was interested in buying any hair products. I declined.

She said excitedly, “Okay, but can I just ask you to smell this hair gel? It has a wonderful orange scent—I love it! Here, just give it a smell.” I took a whiff and agreed that it smelled great. She flashed another radiant smile and gave me a sample packet. “This is your first time here, right? Can I give you our card?” I took one gladly.

As I was leaving, the owner of the shop come back from his lunch break and took his seat at the counter. The young woman waved goodbye and went back to sweeping the floors. The owner saw my expression and said, “We call her Sunshine”. I could see why. I've been a regular customer ever since.

Employees who are especially bright and cheerful can set the tone for an entire small business of office just as those who are especially irritable and unpleasant can. Consequently, a single person can have a hugely disproportionate impact on the general vibe, the customer experience and even customer loyalty, either positively or negatively.

While the owner of the shop on 14th street was aware that Sunshine was a huge asset to his business (she was even adept at upselling!), the owners of the shop nearer my apartment were completely oblivious as to how Chernobyl’s radiating negativity was costing them customers.

Monitoring employees’ general attitude and the impact some staff members can have on others as well as on the customer experience is something few managers and small business owners do.

Small businesses owners would be well advised to pay closer attention to the general atmosphere and tone of their facilities and make hiring decisions accordingly. Replacing a Chernobyl with a Sunshine does require an investment in hiring and training, but it can invigorate an entire staff and pay unexpected dividends in customer retention and loyalty.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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