It is time to celebrate the craft of the front-line worker


Secrets of a French Checkout Operative 3/16/09


There are some people that many of us take for granted and never even notice. We either ignore them or use them as a target on which we can vent the frustrations of the day. Amongst these, frequently, are checkout staff. Checkout staff who many of us only greet, let alone thank, on the rarest of occasions.

But one of that category has decided to vent her own frustrations. Anna Sam, who worked in a French supermarket for almost a decade, has written a book about her experiences with customers and employers alike. Since its appearance in France last year, Les Tribulations d’une Caissière (The Tribulations of a Checkout Girl) has been reprinted 19 times and sold 100,000 copies, according to a report in The Times. The film rights have also been acquired, a musical comedy based on it is planned and a comic-strip version is to appear this year. English is not one of the ten languages into which it has been translated.

Ms. Sam claims that despite smiling at shoppers, she received “little besides insults and disdain in return. She witnessed behavior ranging from the loathsome to the lustful – queue-jumping, cheating, thieving, moaning and sometimes a quick fondle between the meat and the cheese counter.” Self-important managers watched from behind a one-way mirror.

Described by the paper as “the voice of the voiceless, and the witty observer of a place that seems to bring out the worst in us all,” Ms. Sam often said “bonjour” 250 times a day but received few responses. She needed authorization to go to the toilet from managers who kept her waiting. When greeting families at the cash register, parents warned their children, “If you don’t work hard at school, you’ll end up like that lady.”

A blog to let off steam eventually led to the book. Her advice is now sought by politicians, retailers and even a cash register manufacturer developing a training course for his products’ use. But her main advice to retailers is that both managers and checkout staff would benefit from training in how to deal with people as well as products. “You can’t educate shoppers to behave better but you can train employees to handle them,” she said.

Discussion questions:  How would you rate working conditions for retail cashiers and sales associates? Are retailers doing enough to teach managers and checkout staff how to deal with people?

My post: 

The key reason for apathetic front-line workers and the resultant poor service is the poor level of leadership skills in front-line managers – usually due to poor leadership skills of the senior management.  Please read the full article in the Times to understand the experience the author writes about.  

This passage is a great example:  At a retail trade conference in Luxembourg, Sam suggested to executives that they should greet checkout staff every day. “It was as though they had never thought of it. Oh yes, that’s a good idea, they said. They all made a note – ‘say hello in the morning’ – to remind themselves.”  Pathetic, but unfortunately common. 

The message:  Retailers must invest in understanding and hiring for the talent that make effective front line workers and leaders:  empathy, customer focus, high energy, etc.  Provide significant training on people management:  personality types, conflict management, etc.  Then, ensure that senior management consistently models people-centric behaviors:  saying hello to front-line staff, asking their opinions of product, procedures, store design, customer service initiatives, etc.  Treat front-line staff as professionals engaged in an important craft and see how quickly they begin to behave as such.

Mike Osorio, your Dare to be Contagious! TM strategist

What do you think?  Please add your comments and add to the discussion!

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2 Responses to It is time to celebrate the craft of the front-line worker

  1. Nick says:

    I agree with you–it all starts with great leadership. You might be familiar with the Walt Disney World model: Leadership -> Staff Environment -> Customer Satisfaction -> Business Results. You have to treat your staff with respect, take time to develop them, and get to know them and their needs and desires.

    If leaders are not on the frontlines coaching and training their team how to properly greet guests, if they’re not holding high expectations for attire, if they are not doing product-knowledge-checks in pre-shift meetings, if they’re not setting the example themselves, if they are not perfectly crystal-clear on what the expectations are, right down to eliminating phrases like “you guys,” front-line staff will do what comes naturally to them and the guest experience will suffer.

    Team members that feel valued will want to do a good job, so you have to be clear about what that is.

  2. Mike Osorio says:

    Thanks for the great comment. I am familiar with the Disney model and have long admired their ability to maintain the excellence of the “average” cast member. Most companies talk about this issue, but few ever manage to consistently deliver due to lack of senior management vision and engagement. Short term profit motives unfortunately seem to win the battle for scarce resources far too often. Today’s economic malaise will hopefully spur a rethinking of commitment to leadership and frontline service training.

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