Customer Experience

How to Train Your Startup

Maria and I just got back from an awesome trip to Providence, RI where we facilitated a 2 day training for Urban Greens Food Co-op, a startup about to open. As we were wading through the muddy Customer Service waters, I started to think about all the training startups need to be successful and remain on top of the competition - as if opening a store wasn’t stressful enough. Then it occured to me that I know a lot of startups that just don’t do any training at all! They rely on the knowledge of their staff and managers. While I’m sure that method has worked for other in the past, it made me think about building better stores for the future. Just how much training do we need to provide for our startups and how do we do it? We focus on 3 key areas and fill in with related subjects. We find that 2-3 days of training and startup staff have a good overall understanding and can answer questions correctly when quizzed again by their managers :)

Customer Service

Maria and I provided 2 core Customer Service trainings, Customer Service 1 and Customer Service 2. The first training focused on what customer service is and how to give your customers the best experience you can throughout the entire store. We used this graphic to help illustrate the importance of great customer service. One thing we really tried to drive home is the 10-4 Rule. Basically, any time you are within 10 feet of a customer, you need to make eye contact and smile at them and any time you are within 4 feet of a customer, you need to say hello. If you follow this rule, theoretically, you will acknowledge every customer 100% of the time. If you want a little more detail, use this worksheet to walk you through a more in depth look at the 10-4 Rule.

The second part of our Customer Service training walks stores through the process of dealing with difficult customers. For the most part, we’ve all been on both sides of this situation; I’m sure you’ve had a few choice words with your cell phone or internet provider, right? We walked through real life examples and how to respond appropriately in those situations.


The second topic we covered was the exciting world of margins - yay! It’s crazy how often we come across grocery store staff that have no idea what a margin is or how it’s affected. The goal for us is not necessarily how to figure out margin (come on, math isn’t fun for all of us!) but how to recognize what practices and processes affect margin. We want people to walk away with the knowledge that;

  1. You don’t have to raise prices to raise margin!

  2. Even the front end plays a part in margin. Misrings, anyone?

  3. If you’re not hitting your margin, try checking inventory, labor and how many supplies your department is using before you try adjusting your overall margin.

  4. Waste! Shrink! They play a big role in your margin so make sure you have goals and you stick to them.

You can use this little cheat sheet to explain margin and how it differs from markup.


This is one area that ALL stores can use a brush up in! Trends change often enough, it’s hard to know what the standards are and how to use them. Typically, we find that;

  1. There is a system for product placement and selection!

  2. If something isn’t selling, figure out why before you just stop selling it.

  3. Where you put the shelf tag matters!! Use this graphic to help make sure you always put it in the right spot.

  4. There is a strategy to picking your product! You can use this matrix to help you know if you should carry certain products or not.

Category Management is also an area we focus on, mainly because we find that stores don’t know the difference between merchandising and category management. We tell people that;

  1. Category Management is NOT merchandising. A store has Departments such as Grocery, Produce, Dairy, Deli, etc. The product on display within those departments are grouped in sections of like product. These sections are the "categories" in Category Management.

  2. Category Management happens when a category is defined, analyzed, planned for, and acted on by industry participants in that category. It's a vertical system involving collaboration among manufacturers, marketers/analysts, distributors, and retailers.

  3. The goals are to maximize sales and profitability for each category.

You can check out our more in depth worksheet on Category Management for a deeper dive.

These are just a few of the training areas needed for startups, and let’s be honest, all stores. We find that if you can have quarterly trainings on the big umbrella topics, like customer service and margin sprinkled with some more in depth trainings like Category Management and Merchandising, you’re in pretty good shape.

Tools of the Trade

“Technology is nothing. What's important is that you have a faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them.”

Steve Jobs

While much of what we do involves “tools” in the narrow definition.  However if we take a broader view it’s so much more and personifies many intangibles that we might not consider to be tools in the narrow definition. In an era where employees are hard to come by due to a shrinking labor pool it is important to recognize the investment in your staff as simply a part of your toolbox!



Customer service

Customer service is a soft skill that is hard to evaluate in an interview, but can return huge dividends when it comes to positive interactions with your customers.  Every time a staff member interacts with a customer it’s called a “Moment of Truth” it can be the single interaction that develops a lifelong relationship.

Professional Development

Providing training and professional development not only increases productivity of a staff member it also demonstrates that your store is committed to them and you are willing to invest in them.  It is a morale booster and it builds loyalty. 


Employees tend to remain with a company until some force causes them to leave…..Don’t be that force!

Be willing to show compassion for those you work with.  Consider that most of us work full time which constitutes about a third of entire work week, which means we are spending a fair amount of time with our colleagues.  No one is a robot we all have good and bad days and it’s an important intangible to have support on those bad days from your colleagues.

Coaching and constructive criticism

A mentor once told me “The more you try and control the less control you have” Over time I’ve come to realize coaching and constructive criticism are very important tools for success.  Allowing staff members to make decisions even potentially wrong ones has value. Providing regular coaching is critical in the success of any business.

Effective Evaluations

Having a shared vision is an elementary business standard, and providing feedback on how everyone is proceeding with that shared vision should also be a standard.  Setting goals and celebrating when the goals are achieved should also be a standard as well as being accountable for underachieving.  All part of an effective tool for growth.

In closing,

Invest in your staff, give them tools to be successful both personally and professionally.  Guide and coach them to be better people and good community members. Seek outside assistance when necessary to achieve these goals. Be what you expect from your colleagues.

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