by Joel Stark
Snowfox Marketing Director
IF YOU HAVEN’T HAD AN EMPLOYEE ISSUE THAT FRUSTRATED YOU OR AN INCIDENT IN WHICH YOU UPSET A CUSTOMER, YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T BEEN IN BUSINESS LONG. Just like driving a car, simply being aware of the potential dangers of doing it poorly can instill just enough caution to save you. The risks of failing to address an employee or customer concern can range from loss of trust in you by your grocery store manager to crippling legal bills and government penalties.
If you are new to small business ownership, that’s the best reason to read this. But I’ll also boldly predict that veteran business owners who too stubborn to learn HR and customer service basics also risk losing their business (or having it irreparably harmed). Sometimes businesses never bounce back from a punishing court loss or damage to their public reputation.
My goal here is not to replace the advice of a good small business attorney nor to create the kind of worry that keeps you awake at night. But using my background in human resources and retail customer service, I’ll help you prioritize a few issues and direct you to some legal resources you can consult in order to be more organized and confident.
Make Contact with An Attorney
You probably already have an attorney, but I strongly recommend that you work with a lawyer who grew up in the United States. This will ensure they not only understand all employment laws, but they’ve been raised around American retail culture and interpersonal communication.
One of my roles at JFE and Snowfox is handling customer claims and, occasionally, your employees’ complaints. From this job and a previous career in which I resolved both types of issues, I’ve learned there are clues people give when they a.) are exaggerating or being dishonest, b.) have a legitimate complaint, c.) want to be simply heard and understood, or d.) intend to pursue legal action.
Even more than I, a qualified business attorney can effectively advise you on labor or business issues before they get big. Be advised: not even a smart relative, even one who’s been in the U.S. longer than you, can take the place of an attorney who understands what Americans consider clear communication and fairness.
Since the burden of avoiding these problems in the first place rests on you, the franchisee, my best advice is first to simply be aware of what type of misunderstandings can turn into legal issues. On the checklists here, Defuse and Document, I provide a few tips to resolve misunderstandings, particularly with employees, or that will help you if you end up answering to a city, state, or federal official.
In a previous edition of The Secret of the Fox, I introduced the idea of perception, or judgments people make about us whether or not they have all the facts. I emphasized how your client grocery managers develop a personal feeling about you based only on what they see. This edition, I’m touching upon how your employees’ and customers’ perception of you will be key to successfully navigating employee and customer conversations.
Avoid the Perception of Prejudice
It’s strange but a fact. Though most of us try not to, as humans, we naturally judge people we perceive as different from us. So, depending on how long you’ve been in the States, you may find yourself naturally judging Americans, and they may unfairly judge you. However, in human resources situations like hiring and firing, and in customer relations, if you’re from another country, you should understand America’s history and be particularly careful when you have a conflict with non-white Americans.
As do many countries, the U.S. has a history of social injustice. However, both white and non-white Americans take pride in our progress in improving basic rights and opportunity based on people’s abilities instead of on their gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical limitations. You should be extremely careful not be viewed as part of the problem. Prejudice (or, more importantly, the perception of it) can cause you and JFE serious legal issues.
Trust More and Listen (Employees)
There’s no need to worry about hiring Americans or handling American customers. A lot of the employee/supervisor problems I’ve resolved could have been avoided three ways. First, by not avoiding uncomfortable conversations with your employees. Second, by communicating calmly, which includes listening and asking questions. And last, by discussing and properly documenting (writing down) infractions or performance issues before the problem blows up.
Even employees you must fire because they can’t or won’t perform to your standards will usually not create a further problem if, during their employment, you’ve listened, communicated clearly with them, and kept good records of that performance and your expectations. Additionally, making a personal note of an employee conversation and saving or printing emails or text messages may protect you legally. Even when they’re not admissible as evidence, old notes can help you remember and tell your side under oath (confidently and honestly).
Trust More and Listen (Customers)
Likewise, most customers are not trying to take advantage of you or scam you. The best way to handle a dissatisfied customer is still to apologize (you don’t have to admit fault to empathize with someone who believes they had a bad experience and find a good outcome for them).
A big mistake some retailers make when turning down a customer request or arguing with a customer, is forgetting that the person may have purchased from you many times—in other words, they’re a loyal customer. How you handle the situation (see Defuse) is key to keeping them. Some of the most faithful customers, in fact, are ones who’ve expressed their dissatisfaction but were treated with respect by the business. I’ve seen it so many times!
So ask for help, listen more, and protect yourself and JFE as your franchisor. If you’re reading this, you’re the type of person who takes responsibility for your business, so I wish you continued success! Please feel free to contact me with any questions at email@example.com Subject: Magazine TSS