Helping Young People Succeed at Work

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(8 February 2022)

How NOT to Greet Customers

For Starters, You Have to Say Something

Fast-food restaurant greetings have changed—and not for the better.

For most of my lifetime there seemed to be an unwritten rule that fast-food cashiers should greet customers as they step up to the counter. This greeting was almost always something along the lines of “Welcome to McBurgerKing, may I take your order?” It was standard operating procedure, no matter the fast food chain.

Today, by contrast, the standard greeting in most fast-food restaurants I visit is more of a non-greeting. Typically, the cashier just looks at customers and offers no proactive comment at all. Announcing “May I help You?” and “May I take your order?” have seemingly vanished from fast-food server duties.

I miss those greetings. I do not necessarily expect anything more friendly or sincere, but I appreciate a smile and willingness to help me (even if I ultimately asked them to hold the pickles and hold the lettuce, as they used to sing in the Burger King commercials).

When I am “greeted” with a non-greeting, I make a game out of it. I wait them out, not uttering a syllable until the server speaks first. The pause often becomes awkward, sometimes painful. And what happens ultimately? Usually the server will break down and say “Yes?”

“Yes?” is not a greeting.

Whether they realize it or not, as a cashier they are a host. And as a host they should offer a greeting.

I don’t know when the unwritten fast-food greeting rule was torn up, but unsurprisingly the business news increasingly features stories about how these jobs are being automated away. Fast-food companies are installing self-serve order kiosks and smartphone apps to replace human interaction. And while this tactic may work well for companies selling bagged meals of limited scope, it remains a sad comment on the dehumanization of our culture.

I miss human interactions in fast-food situations. I hate the drive-through experience (mostly all the idling...and the awkward wallet removal), so I usually go inside these restaurants to place my order. I always appreciate and respect that the server showed up, and I would typically enjoy having a dialog with them while their team assembles my meal. For a few minutes we are in this together, what else do we have to do?

Meanwhile, what are teens going to do if fast-food jobs disappear? The good news is that there are many businesses that still need teens with good people skills—restaurants included. All over the retail and restaurant landscapes, other companies remain that compete with strategies other than low prices and ruthless efficiency. These companies need employees—even teen employees—able to engage with customers and work with them to solve their problems, satisfy their needs, and fulfill their wants.

In my book, written to help teens in the workplace, I cover the topic of greeting customers in detail. Store greetings begin with welcoming customers with a simple but polite comment, such as “Welcome to the Bike Boutique, come right in”. Even if this comment is followed by a brief modifier, such as “I will be with you shortly”, it is far better than no greeting at all. Meanwhile, there is more to the art of helpful greetings than simply a casual welcome. (And it is NOT saying “let me know if you have any questions”.)

After an initial greeting I suggest that retail hosts begin to engage with customers in a casual but friendly way, to express their eagerness to help but without being pushy. Two ways of engaging helpfully are offering pleasantries and paying complements. The latter can be tricky, because offering fake complements can undermine your sincerity. But sincere complements can be terrific conversation starters.

Consider this interaction: “I love that sweater, did you knit that complex pattern yourself?” “Why yes I did, and let me tell you it is not as hard as it looks”. And there you go, with that small but sincere effort you have made a friendly connection and your interaction is off to a great start.

In circumstances where you, as a host, have no sincere complement to pay, consider offering a pleasantry, such as “We appreciate you coming in today, especially given this harsh weather”. Pleasantries allow you to establish a friendly posture with customers and to telegraph your eagerness to help them, before actually discussing the customer’s particular purpose for visiting your business.

Related, while some customers will tell you what they are seeking right away, others won’t be looking for your active guidance, at least not initially. Many will desire perusing a business—to get the lay of it—before conversing about their specific needs or wants. Nevertheless, they will appreciate knowing you are both eager to help them when they are ready and are not uncaring or disinterested in them.

Whatever you are selling, maybe fast food, auto parts, clothing, or pet supplies, the period between initially welcoming customers and discussing their particular needs and wants is important. Employees that learn to shine here will be well poised to both help their customers succeed and earn their admiration.

Meanwhile, most teens are capable of taking on more challenging roles than merely asking “Do you want lids on these?” Or, at least, with a little experience they will be. Learning to greet customers in helpful ways will put them on track for more challenging—and more fulfilling—positions.

–Greg Kagay

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