A woman walks into a bakery. She stands in the doorway taking in the cheerful lighting, the intoxicating smell of fresh pastries, the inviting, feel-good melody of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ ‘Sherry’ playing softly in the background. She scans for available seating, and turns back to the enormous display of goodies perfectly laid out in front of her. She takes her time, admiring the bakers skillfully working their magic behind the marble counter.
With her senses pushing the brink of overload, she hardly notices that she’s being watched. While she’s taking everything in, her mannerisms, eye movement, and facial expressions are being carefully assessed.
A decision starts to take form as she cautiously walks closer to the glass casing separating the pastries from her. Instinctively, she looks for a face behind the glass and when she finds one, says simply, “I’ve never been here before, but it smells amazing! What should I get?”
But, by now, the face behind the glass knows exactly what she wants.
Have you ever just watched someone be? It’s incredibly eye-opening. Before my stint at a pastry shop, I’d never really had a reason to pay attention to those non-verbal cues.
Some quick background: I jumped from college into the corporate world, where I was expected to operate like a robot — never getting to explore or question my perceptions about marketing, selling your product, and what it meant to truly know your customer.
I did what any person would do in a position where they disliked their job. I quit. Then, took a job working front-of-house at a bakery. What I expected to gain was a fresh perspective and optimism regarding my next career move. What I didn’t expect was just how much that experience would open my eyes to human nature, knowing your audience, and testing theories.
Testing the Message
I remember my first shift on the front-of-house (FOH) staff. I was excited. I’d been studying the products all week and I was oh so ready to show off my skills. My first customer approached the counter (similarly to our cautious first-timer from the beginning of this little story).
I dove into my sales pitch, breathlessly describing our most popular pastry — the Kouign-Amann. I used adjectives like, “gooey,” “buttery” “syrupy” and as I attempted to sell this amazing pastry — I remember watching the woman’s face slowly turn from upturned vibrant smile to downturned disapproving frown after hearing the words “butter” and “sugar.” Just like that, I’d lost her with no hope of recovery. It was shocking that those two (very true) little words could change her whole perception about a pastry! The reality was, she didn’t want to hear about the nitty-gritty, especially when it involved extra butter and sugar. She just wanted to hear “This is amazing and you should try it.”
From that point on I tried my best to dance around the fact that this thing was absolutely busting with butter and sugar, sticking firmly to something more like:
“If you haven’t yet, try the Kouign-Amann. It’s our best seller, and it’s ah-ma-zing.”
From there, let the customer navigate their buttery journey.
Reading the Room
Each day brings in a new set of customers. Sometimes everyone is happy, sometimes they’re all cranky. Either way, it’s your job as the staff member to make sure everyone leaves happier than when they came in, and you’d better be quick about it.
Before starting the work day, I would take a quick scan of the place. How depleted the pastries were, how the staff was getting along behind the counter, how customers were interacting with each other. Down to listening to what was playing on the radio, and how clean the floors were — all indicators of what I was about to get myself into that day.
To this day, if I’m in a new situation I’ll make a conscious effort to assess the same things. It’s a habit that’s helped me gauge how to interact with the around me.
Diffusing the Situation
I remember a man walking through the line only to find me at the register, ready to ring him up. When I took account of what he was purchasing, I looked up, gave him my best, “I’ve been doing this for 8 hours straight, and I hate everyone,” smile, and then paused and realized that he looked very upset. When I asked him if there was anything more I could do for him, he pointed at a girl next to me and yelled, “She should be fired for what she did to me!”
This was one of our sweetest employees, and a girl who would never do anything to hurt a customer. Confused, I leaned toward her, softly asking her to get our manager, while I stayed there to try to calm him down.
I didn’t do much aside from smile, nod, express my earnest apologies, and ask what happened. But, it turns out, that was all it took.
The easiest way to diffuse situations is to personally say, “I’m sorry.” Not the company. Not the other employee. You are personally sorry. Then shutting up and listening to what they have to say. After that, express gratitude for sharing their feedback.
Bakeries are a sanctuary for pregnant women. Roughly 90% of our customers were either in their second or third trimester. If you don’t have much experience either being pregnant or being around someone who is, then the hormonal roller-coaster that is pregnancy can throw you as an outside observer.
One morning, a very pregnant woman who was looking like she was having a rough morning ordered a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast. She smiled a somewhat forced smile as she paid for her purchase and sat down with her friend to dine.
Not thirty seconds after removing her cookie from its sleeve, she stormed up to the register, bumping another customer out of the way, thrust the cookie into my face and yelled, “There’s a hair in this cookie!”
Flustered, and embarrassed for not only the store, but the customer she’d shoved out of her way, I calmly took the cookie from her hand, apologized and asked her to take a seat, and someone would be there to assist her.
After helping the customer at the register. I took the cookie to the back of the house to show our bakers, and asked them to be more careful.
I then, grabbed a fresh, hair-free cookie, took it out to the angry customer and attempted to apologize further.
The woman looked at me briefly in disbelief, then, with a rage that burned like a thousand suns appeared on her face, and an anger that could move bowels was released upon me as she screamed, “You inconsiderate bitch, what makes you think I would I want to eat anything here after what I just saw?”
I froze, looking from her to her friend and back again. All I could think was “Holy shit, Sarah. Get out of there!”
I apologized again, and offered to get my manager, who could reimburse her for the cookie, and offer the stores deepest apologies. Scrambling to get behind the counter where I was safe, I sent our manager out to clean up the mess, and was stunned to see how easily she’d diffused the situation. Handing her back her money and apologizing on the stores behalf.
Anticipating another person’s needs is tricky and often unpredictable. You can read all the signs, offer all the right things, but sometimes, people just want to hear from an authority figure, that they are being heard.
Working at a the bakery was stressful and physically exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It opened my eyes to customer service, and taught me a valuable lesson about client services:
The best way to know your customer is to ask questions face-to-face. Then just listen and watch.
Oh, and if you haven’t yet, you really should try a Kouign-Amann. It’ll change your life.