Employee feedback an important tool

What are they trying to tell you?

Chris Lamb, manager of Avalon Music on Railroad Avenue, said enabling and working with employee feedback is a critical part of his job, because it helps diffuse prickly situations between employees and also keeps him abreast of what kind of feedback he’s getting from customers.

Dan Hiestand
   If there is a better way to do things at his workplace, Chris Lamb said he wants to hear about it.
   The 28-year-old manager at Avalon Music in Bellingham is fully aware that the best way to run a successful business is to work as a team.
   “We’re a pretty smooth-running team here,” said Lamb, who first started working at the locally owned music store in 1998. “If there are ever any issues, I always make it a point to ask everybody how they are doing and let it be known that they can come to me at anytime for anything. Since we are so close, we all get pretty intimate with each other’s personal business, too. If somebody is having a bad day, it’s apparent. We all know each other well enough that we can help each other out.”
   The world of music is immense, so Lamb said he depends greatly on his employees to make his store more appealing to customers by utilizing employee input.
   “Employees have recommended music that we should carry that I wouldn’t normally have thought of,” he said. “No one person can stay on top of it all. I really rely on everybody who works on the floor and talks with customers to let me know what people are asking for.”
   Employee feedback is not just important from the standpoint of quashing possible workplace problems, but also as a means to helping a business reach its full potential.

Happy employees = happy customers
   For Jeff Mitchell, a sales associate at Avalon, employee feedback helps him do a better job.
   “Having the open line of communication is important so our needs are met and everything keeps working,” said Mitchell, who has been at the shop since 2004. “The door is always open (to management), and I do feel like we get listened to.”
   Lamb said that communication in a store as small as Avalon is critical.
   “The morale of the workforce is very, very important because a lot of our success is contingent upon our perception by the public,” Lamb said. “You can get a cheaper CD elsewhere. We’re kind of fighting tooth-and-nail here. What sets us apart is our customer service, and in order to serve a customer, you have to have a happy employee who not only knows what he’s doing, but cares enough about it. And if they are not happy, they are not going to care. Since it is a very intimate workplace, we really try to keep the flow of communication open.”
   Employees need to feel listened to, said Zac Dubel, manager at Kulshan Cycles.
   “If you don’t (have employee feedback), you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot, so to speak,” said Dubel. “These are the people who are — I guess business-wise — making the store money and also at the same time representing your company.”
   The most important thing a manager can do to ensure employees are satisfied is to simply keep an eye on the little things, Lamb said.
   “I just try to take a more general gauge on how everybody is doing. Do they look like they’ve dreaded the walk to work, or not? Are they smiling when they are helping people? Are they surly on the phone? It happens from time-to-time,” he said. “Not everybody is chipper every day. At that point, I would just say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Is there anything wrong?’”
   When employees do come to him — especially in regard to negative feedback — he tries to remain as neutral as possible.
   “I kind of like to see myself as a mediator,” he said. “I try to create in myself sort of a neutral ground. If one of the part-timers has gripes about the other guy, he can come to me knowing full well that I will then go to the other guy and talk about everything that we talked about. But it’s a little easier, less direct, less confrontational way of doing things.”

Keeping the lines open
   The easiest and most effective way to garner feedback from his employees often occurs via a notepad that sits on the Avalon store counter, Lamb said. The notepad is a multi-functional tool that allows management and employees to have an open line of communication via written word, addressing topics ranging from concerns to reminders and everything in between.
   “That pad is in a real prominent location. Usually the first thing that everybody does when they come in is to look at it just to see what is going on for the day,” he said.
   All employees and managers have access to the pad, Lamb said.
   The system is a bit more sophisticated at Kulshan Cycles, where managers and employees can utilize a computer messaging system to keep up-to-date on feedback issues.
   "It’s always been an open-door policy," said Dubel. "It sounds cliché, but I’ve literally never seen (owner Eric) Moe’s door closed. So when it comes to decisions or questions or anything you have, it’s just pretty darn straightforward."
   Kulshan also conducts store meetings once per month, he said.
   Employee feedback helps ensure that his business has the latest, most popular gear, said Sportsman Chalet owner Noel Lemke.
   “Obviously we try and work on (encouraging feedback) because it is very important," Lemke said, “You’re not always as successful at it as you want to be, but I think it is critical for any business to get perspectives all the time. I ask my employees what we are missing, what they think is cool, and what people want to try and make sure that we are able to stay in touch with what the market is needing.”
   The atmosphere at Avalon is intentionally laid-back, Lamb said, and formal management-employee meetings are rare.
   “We will have a store meeting maybe once per year. If some sort of issue comes up, maybe like a lapse in the quality of work that gets done — which rarely happens — there will be a full-on store meeting after hours when everyone can be here and we can be undistracted by the telephone and stuff,” he said. “Usually that happens around the holidays anyway (as part of an end-of-the-year holiday function).”
   Lamb said managers and employers who create a positive environment for employees typically find the most success in garnering employee feedback.
   “Foster a sense of availability and just general affability. Be approachable,” Lamb said. “Don’t vent your frustration at a mistake — or a lapse in policy — directly at the person at the time that it happens. The pad that we have also acts as sort of a cooling-off board. You can write a message and the brunt of your frustration can go onto paper. When you come back and look at that same note later, it doesn’t nearly have that same impact.”

Broadening of the experience
   Lamb — with business partner Nils Rye — hopes to eventually buy Avalon from current owner Jim Nickol. Over the years, Nickol has taught Lamb a lot about how to manage the store. One of the most important lessons involves listening to employees.
   “If you are not listening to them and you are just sort of relying on them to be drones or extensions of yourself, you’ll just be frustrated because no one will do things exactly the way you would do them,” Lamb said. “I like to listen because, if I didn’t get any feedback, the store would just become a more narrow vision of what myself and Nils would see. And while we like to think that we can find that vision and that it would satisfy our customers, I like a variety of input to sort of broaden the experience here at Avalon.”
   Employee feedback is crucial to making this vision a reality.
   “They don’t really have too much of a say in direct policy because the policy at this point has been around for so long (because it works),” he said. “Every experience has basically been experienced after 20 years, as far as (issues) like customer relations, and vendor relations.”
   At the end of the day, Lamb said he knows that the employees are the heart of the business.
   “Everybody brings in an element with them to the store, and everybody has their own personality,” he said. “(One employee) is really into world music and funky percussion. (Another employee) is the heavy metal god. Nils is all about electronic music and I’m all about psychedelic stuff. We all have our friends and our peer groups — and the more variety of people who come into the store, the better it is.”

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