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Promoting Civility in Retail: The Customer is Not Always Right

PODCAST PERSPECTIVE: In the latest People + Strategy podcast, the chief people officer at Dick’s Sporting Goods explained how the company used employee feedback to completely flip the way it trained managers and staff to deal with customer conflicts.

Julie Lodge-Jarrett, CHRO of Dick's Sporting Goods

In a country with an exposed nerve, the retail sector is often Ground Zero when it comes to disrespectful workplace behavior.

Historically, retail managers have responded to rude customers by trying to calm the situation and putting that customer’s needs and feelings at the top of the priority list. But that “customer is always right” attitude can quickly turn off the front-line employees who absorbed the initial customer abuse.

“We heard from our [employees] that they didn’t feel like we had their backs,” said Julie Lodge-Jarrett, the chief people and purpose officer at Dick’s Sporting Goods, who said the company changed its customer intervention policy a couple years ago in response to that employee feedback.

“The reality is that there are many times when the customer isn’t right; where the customer isn’t treating our [employees] with the civility and respect they deserve,” Lodge-Jarrett said during a recent edition of the SHRM Executive Network’s People + Strategy Podcast.

In the past, Dick’s managers would respond to customer conflicts by apologizing to the customer “whether or not we did anything wrong,” Lodge-Jarrett said. Step two would be to remove the front-line employee from the situation and do anything possible to please the customer. But when employees complained about this process, Dick’s completely changed how it trained managers and employees to approach customer conflicts.

Under the new process, Lodge-Jarrett said, a manager still intervenes but instead says something like, “Sir, I can tell you’re unhappy and I would like to do everything I can to help you get what you came in here for today. But I want to start by saying that at Dick’s Sporting Goods, we don’t tolerate lack of respect and we expect that everyone’s treated with the dignity that they deserve. And how you’re treating my teammate is unacceptable. So we’ve got two choices. You can choose to be civil, and if you do, I’d love to help you get what you came here for. Or if you don’t think you can do that, I’d politely ask you to leave.”

The result? Lodge-Jarrett said "that one small step paid big dividends to create greater civility within our stores and to create that reciprocal agreement” between both employees and customers.

It’s not a realistic goal to eliminate all disagreements between employees and customers, or among employees themselves. But it’s HR’s duty, she said, to help facilitate those hard conversations and bring understanding to both parties.

“Civility or lack thereof is not synonymous with misalignment or disagreement,” Lodge-Jarrett said. “I think it’s our responsibility in HR to create the conditions by which you can have messy but healthy debates and discussions. And you can do that in a civil way even if you’re not aligned and on the same page.”

To help enable those conversations, Dick’s started a new program in 2020 called Dialogue Circles. It brought employees together in small groups—either in person or online—to allow for facilitator-led conversations on topics that historically would’ve been seen as taboo in the workplace, such as gun reform, abortion and racial conflict. 

One topic that Dick’s won’t be facilitating Dialogue Circles around is the 2024 presidential election. Employees will be able to discuss issues in these gatherings, but not candidates. And the company is reminding workers to avoid the hot-button red versus blue debate.

“We are doubling down on reinforcing our zero-tolerance stance,” Lodge-Jarrett said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, agnostic of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or support one candidate or the other. … When the nation feels so divided, we’re at least creating a culture where we feel more united and feel like we belong, at least inside our four walls.”


Other insights from Julie Lodge-Jarrett on the People + Strategy podcast


When should companies take a stand on social issues?  

“We’ve had a lot of debate and discussion on that in the past, and I would say that our default is not to publicly enter the conversation. Our default is to remain quiet on things where we don’t have something to say or where we don’t think we authentically have earned the right to have a point of view. But there are a few things where we are going to decide to be public, and firearms is a great example of that.

“We unfortunately found ourselves a part of this story. We sold a gun to the Parkland shooter months before the shootings occurred. Thankfully we didn’t sell the gun that he used, but the reality was we did everything right, and somehow this young man still ended up with multiple firearms in his possession, and that didn’t feel good. We didn’t want to be part of that story anymore, and we felt like we had the responsibility to be part of the change that we wanted to see across the nation.” (Note: In 2019, Dick’s pulled assault-style weapons from its stores and stopped selling firearms to people under 21.)


Two questions HR leaders should ask when deciding what to prioritize.

“I encourage my team to look through two frames in any decision that we make about how we spend our time and the type of work that we do. The first is always, is the work we’re doing adding business value? I think there needs to be a direct linkage and cause and effect. I think it’s a cop-out to say we can’t measure the effect and the impact of our work on the business. We need to have those analytics to be able to prove that the work we’re doing is driving the business forward.

“The second [question]: Is the work we’re doing enhancing the employee experience? We have the responsibility to be advocates for our employees, to be the voice of the employees when their voice isn’t being heard to the extent that it should or could. And if we do this right, we know there’s a direct correlation between our top quartile of stores from an [employee] satisfaction perspective and our top quartile of stores from a customer satisfaction.”


How do sports transfer into the workplace?

“What I learned from being a student athlete is the importance of work ethic, of resilience, of grit. Sports taught me how to win and how to lose with civility, and we don’t see that necessarily all the time on the courts and fields today. It taught me good sportsmanship, how to be a part of a team and to know when to lead, but to also know when to be willing to be a follower for the good of the team.

“All of those skills are directly transferable to our professional life, … and they’re directly impacting the decisions I make as a people leader as well. Because just as in sport, a coach has to change the way they approach each individual athlete because they all respond differently to different feedback and different styles. The same needs to be true for us as people leaders, knowing that we’ve got to figure out what motivates and what disincentivizes each of our teammates.”



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