Hand Holding Red Grapes

Where are Your Grapes?

How We Eventually Create System “Pull” By Truly Connecting with the Person Before Us and Refusing to Be Disappointed No Matter What

Most people reading this article will have experienced being in a shop and finding themselves asking the assistant a question like: “Excuse me, where are the grapes?” You can substitute grapes for beans; coffee; bananas etc. Grapes are not the point.

You see, not that long ago this precise scenario was the root cause of persistent customer dissatisfaction in the retail sector (at least in the UK). In those days, the usual response from the assistant was to point the customer in the direction of the aisle where the product was supposed to be. More often than not, the assistant was cited in surveys and complaints as being impersonal, disinterested or just plain rude.

It was a significant problem for the retailers because for every customer who complained, many more voted with their feet. Furthermore, shoppers who frequently divided their loyalty between competing retailers were labelled “promiscuous”. This language spoke volumes about the prevailing cultural attitude towards the people they were there to serve. Eventually, retailers began to recognise this “pinch point” as a fundamental system issue. Shop workers tended to be well-trained on the core operational processes required to keep the shelves stocked and stores clean and safe. But what training and support did they receive about the emotional labour required to deal with the “living system” challenges associated with their job?

.. shoppers who divided their loyalty betweeen retailers were considered “promiscuous” ..

Let’s imagine for a moment we are the shop assistant. It was a bad start to the morning. The car broke down. The daughter wasn’t feeling well, so had to arrange to get her round to mum’s, after phoning the school to let them know. Get to work late on public transport. Supervisor not happy. Tells you you’ve been leaving gaps on the shelves and she’s got her eye on you. You’re busy restocking the depleted cereal shelves when the supervisor asks you to clean up a spillage in aisle 4, where a customer has accidentally dropped several jars of pickles. You’re on your way there when a shopper pops up from nowhere and takes forever to ask, “Excuse me, where are your blah blah blah?”

Nowadays, if you find yourself in the position of having to ask that question, in most stores, the assistant will stop whatever they’re doing and take you to the exact location of the product. They will also ask you if there is anything else you need help with, and assure you they and the team are always on hand for you. An altogether different experience than pointing you to aisle 9 with a nonchalant flick of the head – don’t you think? Yet it took decades for this behaviour-change to take root and convert a brand eroding problem into a brand-building norm.

Balancing the “Fuzziness” of the Human Condition with Process Excellence

This is clearly about getting the balance right between human interaction and process excellence. All it needed was an apparently “simple” behaviour change on the part of the frontline staff. In reality, the shop assistants were dealing with a deeply complex conundrum: how to create systemic “pull’ through their dynamic interactions with customers. The solution was to have them appreciate, in such moments, their behavioural choices made the difference between a poor and good customer experience. And in the blink of an eye, either enhanced or eroded the purported brand values of their employer.

Also, referrals from one subsystem to another (aisles in this case), only made sense to “insiders” who understand the topology of the wider system. That is to say, the latest layout of the store. More often than not, stakeholders (be they customers, tenants, students, service users, patients) need to be “navigated” not “referred” to get the best possible experience. The bigger and busier the store, the greater the need for navigation.

Our 4th “System Fable” is framed as a bit of fun which might just illustrate an important system principle, and tickle that curious mind of yours. It has a catchy soundtrack, so plug in your earphones or set your volume to a socially acceptable level before you click on the image below.

System Fable# 4: Take Me to the Grapes

By Byant Oden and Forrest Whaley

Exploring the Perspectives

  • What do the grapes represent?
  • Why is the duck so persistent?
  • What is the significance of the lemonade seller taking the duck to the store?

More to explore

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Unlearning the Learning One interesting way to judge an innovation’s impact is to examine its linguistic influence. It’s a bit like the

Benefits of Journaling

Mindspace is Handcrafted Exercising our fine motor skills by using our hands for writing, drawing, knitting and so on, engages the mind

EQ Sense-making

The Designer’s Paradox

You can’t design guaranteed outcomes in a complex living system but you can maximise the likelihood of a good experience. The challenge

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