Improve your customer service by channeling a big wet dog at PETCO

By Micah Solomon – keynote speaker, customer service speaker, customer service consultant, and #1 bestselling author of “Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization.” Visit with Micah at

The range of how much (or how little) a single employee can give to an organization and its customers is so wide, as wide as the range of human possibility. I think of someone from an entirely different context – physiologist Ivan Pavlov — as an ultimate example of this.

Pavlov’s experiment–his research–was supposed to be analyzing the saliva of dogs after they were being fed. It was outside his purview to even notice the fact that the dogs salivated in advance of the food being delivered. In fact, by making note of this unexpected phenomenon, he made his job messier, the experiment less straightforward. Yet because he was a curious fellow, whose elective efforts had been unlocked, he changed the nature of the experiment and came up with his concept of the conditioned reflex – thus making history.

How do you develop your employees into game-changers like Pavlov?  How do you unlock their elective efforts? Make it easy on yourself for starters: Begin where possible, with the right folks. For customer-facing employees, this means following my acronym “WETCO” (you’ll never forget this if you picture it like a big wet dog at Petco): Hire your team based on the following psychological traits, even before you start thinking about the specific skill set you are looking for.

Warmth – simple human kindness.

Empathy – the ability to sense what another person is feeling.

Teamwork – the bias against “I can do it all myself” and toward “Let’s work make this happen together.”

Conscientiousness – detail orientation; ability to use a follow-up system.

Optimism – the ability to bounce back and not internalize challenges working with customers.

(By the way: Optimism is not what you hire for in every position. We all saw what overly optimistic accounting did at Enron, and more recently at Lehman Brothers. But you need optimism in customer-facing employees. Because customers will grind them down to a nub without it.)

Second, you guarantee you get the most out of your team by making sure that every employee, from orientation onward, understands his or her particular underlying purpose in your organization and appreciates its importance.

An employee has both a function—the day-to-day job responsibilities—and a purpose: the reason why the job exists. For example: ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients” might be the employee purpose in a health care setting. “To change linens,” by contrast, might be that same employee’s function. A properly trained and managed employee in this setting will know to—and will be empowered to—stop changing linens if creating successful medical outcomes or being hospitable require a different action at the moment.

And most importantly, that employee will be celebrated for doing so afterward, not scolded for being a few short in the number of linens changed.

This article by Micah Solomon appeared in somewhat different form on American Express OPEN Forum