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Customer Service Secrets from The Grocer’s Store Manager of the Year - Morrisons’ Joanne Bennett-McNally

Amongst the many amazing stories told at this year’s Grocer Gold Awards, there was one that shone brighter than the rest for the team here at Critizr. As a sponsor of this year’s virtual ceremony, it was fascinating and heartening to hear from retail’s frontline heroes, who all deserve our praise and gratitude for the way they’ve coped with life on the shop floor this year. But when we heard Joanne Bennett-McNally’s interview after winning Store Manager of the Year 2020, her words stopped us in our tracks. As manager of Morrisons’ Widnes store, Joanne talked passionately about keeping her focus on customers even when Covid created so many operational headaches; about staff surveys and coffees with grumpy shoppers to get feedback and advice from everywhere possible; and about using feedback to take action, increase customer satisfaction and boost staff morale. 

It’s no wonder the customer obsessives at Critizr had to find out more! Luckily for us, Joanne agreed to take some time out from the shop floor to tell us more.

Critizr: Hi Joanne, congratulations again on winning Store Manager of the Year 2020 at the Grocer Golds. How does it feel to have scooped such an accolade?

Joanne: Incredible but also very strange. When I heard my name and the huge cheer from my team in the next room, I couldn’t actually believe it.  I’m a grounded person, and I love my job and just want to do it well, so it came as a huge surprise. It’s something I’ll be very proud to tell my grandchildren, especially since I’m also the first woman to have ever won this category which I feel is a massive achievement. 

Critizr: Tell us what was it like for you and your team earlier in 2020 when the reality of Covid started to hit?

Joanne:  I was on a late shift when the first lockdown was announced and it was a massive shock, even though we knew it may be happening. I remember it being very quiet across the store. There was immediately a lot of operational information coming down the line that I had to keep close to, and we entered what I’d say was a bit of a wartime approach with the team. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to help. But we didn’t forget our customers. They went from coming freely into our store to overnight being put into queueing systems and wearing face masks. These were not easy messages for them to hear but our teams were brilliant and helped them every step of the way, and there were so many brilliant examples of customer service. I think Morrisons as a business responded very quickly and were very responsive to feedback from what was happening on the shop floor. 

Critizr: You had already implemented some transformational changes in customer service at the Widnes store before Covid. Can you tell us more?

Joanne: I think customer service is the most important thing we can do in retail. My whole career has been in this industry, and I’ve been a store manager since the age of 20, as well as working in pubs before that. So customer service is absolutely ingrained in me. Plus I love talking to people and I will talk to any customer! When I started at the Widnes store, there were a lot of challenges. We couldn’t change everything overnight, but I told the team, let’s start by asking customers what they want, and then let’s do something with that information. Let’s start fixing the small stuff and see what happens. At the start, there was quite low staff morale and some of the team were a bit uncomfortable about hearing all of this feedback, but I told them to tackle it head-on, get the information and, most importantly, do something with it.

Critizr: How did your approach with customers change during Covid? 

Joanne: I think customers could see that we were really trying to help, and by the time Covid struck, we had laid a lot of good groundwork at the store to improve service and day to day customer communication. A good example was our weekly assisted shops, where staff walk around the full shop with a customer to see it through their eyes. A result of this was realising the layout needed to be changed, so we removed some of the additional end displays and customers really appreciated that. When we were recognised for making changes and received positive feedback, that made my team just want to do more. 

Critizr: Did this approach help improve staff morale? 

Joanne: It’s definitely the case that if customers are happy, it boosts staff morale. I see my job as being a coach for our 200 plus team, helping them to provide the best possible service across the store. Receiving a 12 out of 12 score for our mystery shop was a lightbulb moment for all of us. These are snapshots in time, and getting full marks in every one made the team realise that they were delivering a consistently high level of service. In the past it was quite hard to find things to celebrate, but now when we fix things, we revisit it and celebrate when we get it right.

Critizr: What are the components of good customer service now? Have they changed?

Joanne: I think after this year customers need us more than ever, and Covid has only highlighted the need for human interaction. I speak to some customers now and for some older people especially, it may be the only conversation and light relief that they have all day. It’s vital that we are there for customers and that we make these conversations special, and in that way, they’ll associate our store with great customer service. 

Critizr: How important has the local connection been for you and your staff during the pandemic? 

Joanne: Reaching out to our community has been vital. I have community champions in the store who perform miracles! They take food to care homes, deliveries to people who can’t come to the store, even littles chocolate bars left on cars in the car park as a treat. It’s a great way to promote what we’re doing and Morrisons really celebrate the staff who are making a difference.  I could tell you thousands of stories of how they have helped with small acts of kindness and shone in their communities. 

Critizr: finally, what are your plans going forward?

Joanne: All I want to do in my role is to make my team, my store or any store to be the very best they can be.  Store managers are like a family at Morrisons, and  I really love being part of this network of people. I’m so proud of my award but I’m always on the phone to the other managers - and there’s always something to learn from them.