In a previous blog ("A new meaning for customer service") I described how during a visit to the fish counter at my local newly renovated Waitrose I ended up advising the nice young lad working there (I'll call him Bob for now) about the benefits of Cornish sardines (they are brilliantly cheap, sustainable, local, healthy, tasty and easy to cook), and how I'd had to leave a queue of customers that started forming who were eager to share in this information.
What happened on my next encounter with Bob the apprentice fishmonger was even more enlightening. As soon as he saw me approach the counter, his face lit up and he greeted me with "Hello, you're the sustainable fish guy!" He then said that what I had told him last time had led him to do some research on his own to support what he had heard from me. I told him well done and that I was happy I had piqued his interest to such an extent. So far, so uplifting.
On the following occasion that I visited the fish counter, it was manned by one of his young colleagues, while our friend Bob was further down serving customers on the deli counter. So I asked the new guy if he could tell me which fish were the most sustainable. As he drew a blank, I called across to Bob to ask if he could help enlighten his colleague. Looking quite chuffed Bob replied "The sardines or mackerel". However, when I asked why they were so cheap and sustainable, he looked less happy, muttering that he had forgotten exactly why. Ditto when I followed up with a question about the health benefits of these oily fish (Omega 3 good for the heart and brain).
On the one hand, this experience shows how a little knowledge can be enough to stimulate someone's natural curiosity, especially when it makes their job more interesting and rewarding. On the other, it highlights the importance of on-going training. Unless people are actively encouraged to learn more and put their new knowledge into practice, both the curiosity and knowledge can wither away.
In the context of supermarkets, which employ more people than any other private sector doing (let's be honest) mostly tedious tasks, the fact that those on the frontline (i.e., cashiers and shelf restockers, not just those working on service counters) often know less about what they are selling than their customers surely represents a huge waste of pent-up curiosity and energy. Or viewed more positively, a tremendous opportunity - especially given the introduction of the Living Wage and apprenticeship levy. In the meantime, I look forward to chatting to Bob and his colleagues more often.