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I visited three retail cannabis stores recently and made purchases in two. The three stores were in two different cities in Southern California's Coachella Valley, and each presented a fairly different shopping experience.

What made such an impression were the attitudes and skills of the employees I encountered in each dispensary, and my overall experiences as a consumer. Each store was designed differently, with product variety and placement obviously catering to its local market. The “vibe” of each store also reflected the demographics of the area being served. For example, the dispensary located in a high-end shopping area was like walking into an expensive jewelry store: Product was displayed in separate glass and chrome cabinets with modern lighting, showcasing product merchandised with small pieces of art and décor.

The budtenders were all women wearing uniforms that appeared custom made—black pencil skirts and green long-sleeved tops with dispensary logo—and they took me on a guided tour. Security was discretely present. At the end of my shopping experience, another woman walked me to the lobby and asked me how I liked the experience and whether my needs were met.

Another dispensary located near the freeway was similar in that it had a security person inside and a front desk person who checked IDs. The atmosphere was very different once you entered the product area. This store was set up for efficiency and convenience, two factors that its customers (travelers and tourists) would want. Product was organized by delivery system (i.e., smoking/vaping; edibles; extracts and oils; etc.) and displayed on wall merchandisers and in long glass counter cabinets. Budtenders were positioned along the counters by product area. Regardless of these differences, all the budtenders I encountered were knowledgeable, polite, initiated conversations, didn’t rush me and seemed genuinely glad to help me decide among the varieties of products that they presented to me.

I must say that my entire experience was very different than the consumer experiences I have had in other retail shops selling non-cannabis products. At the dispensaries, I experienced customer service as originally defined, and it made me want to come back. This was where the owner/manager’s leadership, staff training, the selection of products, back office support and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) all came together to define the store’s mission through a single transaction between the customer and the budtender.

Leaders with emotional intelligence are more likely to create a workplace where employees are committed to providing excellence in customer service.

Delivering Great Customer Service

Do my customer service experiences sound like they would happen in your dispensary? Do you have employees who want to come to work every day and provide excellent service to your dispensary customers?

There are many available resources and opinions about what makes a great customer service representative. Here are the attributes that I experienced:

1. Patience: They took the time to truly figure out what I wanted or needed.

2. Intuition: Understanding and intuiting what I was telling them, by listening for subtle clues about my current mood, my personality and how I expressed my needs.

3. Product knowledge: They knew their dispensary’s products, how they typically perform, the differences between delivery options (vape, edible, oil, tincture, etc.), and had suggestions for what might work best for me.

4. Staying positive and using positive language: When making product comparisons, they pointed out the positive qualities of each product. They all had a cheery persona despite the number of questions I asked and my lack of knowledge.

5. Keeping calm under pressure: Excellent customer service providers can “keep their cool” in stressful situations.

6. They were articulate: Each budtender shared a compelling message about their dispensary’s products.

7. Work ethic: There seemed to be a willingness on the budtenders’ part to not take shortcuts and to do what it takes ensure I was a satisfied customer.

8. Closing the sale: They ended the conversation with an intent to make a sale based on ensuring I was satisfied with the purchase.

Customer service is not a department, but a philosophy to be embraced by every employee, according to Forbes. Certainly, “good” service isn’t good enough anymore given the competition for dispensary customers. A dispensary is service-driven, and customer expectations are high. Dispensaries must not only get it right for customers each time, they must do the “extra things” that inspire loyalty and make the customer want to come back.

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Inspiring Great Customer Service

My recent customer service experience leads me to wonder what drives the employees in those dispensaries to want to come to work and provide excellent customer service?

One critical factor that influences all others is the positive relationship between employees and their direct manager, who often is the dispensary owner. The leadership behavior of an employee’s manager is highly correlated to employee engagement. And engaged employees are those who are committed to your dispensary’s mission of providing outstanding customer service.

When dispensary leadership is committed to making the dispensary a great place to work by engaging employees, we often find that the owner/manager displays the leadership trait of emotional intelligence.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own and others’ emotions and how they drive behavior, and then using that knowledge to motivate others.” Emotional intelligence has to do with one’s ability to both recognize and control his/her own emotions, as well as an awareness of and sensitivity toward others’ emotions. A dispensary owner/manager’s emotional intelligence can influence how they manage the dispensary team and how they interact with each employee.

Leaders with emotional intelligence are more likely to create a workplace where employees are committed to providing excellence in customer service. Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as the critical factor that sets superior leaders apart from average leaders; these are leaders who pay attention to people, provide a work environment where employees feel comfortable to take risks and to voice their opinions. These leaders are aware of how others will react emotionally and can leverage emotions for the good of the organization. This is the kind of leader who cultivates a work culture that makes employees want to work for them. Because these employees have this type of leadership, they are then able to pass on their positive feelings about their job to the customer. And thus, the foundation of excellence in customer service is established. Because the employee is engaged, they care about the success of the dispensary and are emotionally connected to its success. Again, success for most dispensaries is defined by the experiences of its customers. Excellent customer service that is replicated continuously and consistently, every hour of every day the dispensary is open, means success for the dispensary and for the dispensary employees.

A telltale sign of leaders who need to work on managing their emotions is that they frequently have upsetting or difficult interactions with others.

Emotional Intelligence How-To

A lack of emotional intelligence in leaders or the management team can be devastating to the rest of the dispensary workforce. Leaders who are low in emotional intelligence tend to react poorly in stressful situations because they fail to manage their emotions. Sometimes this failure comes across as aggressive or as a verbal attack. This will create an even more stressful environment where workers are nervous about when another outburst or awkward situation might happen. This could have a very negative effect on productivity and certainly on customer service, as employees are distracted and not focused on the customer.

A telltale sign of leaders who need to work on managing their emotions is that they frequently have upsetting or difficult interactions with others.

Lacking emotional intelligence means that the leader sets a poor example of how to treat people—an example that can “trickle down” through the dispensary, often resulting in low morale, lack of employee engagement, and high turnover. An employee who feels unmotivated or dislikes management will likely reflect that feeling when dealing with customers.

Thus, to increase customer service performance in your dispensary, you might want to improve your emotional intelligence. The good news is that it is possible to develop these skills by focusing on the four elements of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-Awareness: Get some honest feedback about your current behavior.
  • Social Awareness: In social interactions, focus more on the other person than yourself.
  • Self-Management: Take a 20-second pause that allows your "thinking brain" to control your behavior rather than engaging your "emotion brain."
  • Relationship Management: Practice being positive with your employees to give them a sense of hope and commitment to the goal.

Increasing your emotional intelligence takes work, but the benefits make the effort worthwhile. As an emotionally intelligent leader, you will see positivity in your dispensary, increased engagement of your employees, and satisfied repeat customers who have received excellent customer service.

Note: This column is not to be considered as legal or financial advice nor does it address all HR regulatory actions that may impact your business.