Empathy at Trader Joe’s

TraderJoes

In X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Brian Solis asserts that experience is the new brand, and he devotes an entire book discussing how companies can create “memorable moments for your customers through every encounter they have with your brand — all day, every day.” He says that customers want empathy, not impersonal treatment, and companies that know how to be empathic enjoy a huge competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Empathy comes from humans, not technology. And empathy happens in everyday moments. Let me give you an example.

As tax day approached April 14, I glumly mailed two checks to the U.S. Treasury and the Illinois Department of Revenue and then decided to overcome the depressing with the mundane: I ran an errand at a Trader Joe’s near my home in Downers Grove, Illinois. Rendering unto Caesar is important; but so is restocking skim milk and coffee.

I filled my cart with the usual assortment of TJ’s bagels, juice, fruit, and other goodies, jumped into a check-out lane, and inserted my debit card for payment. A cashier named Stephan greeted me with a warm smile, like just another dude trying to spread good cheer.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Ah, well, you know . . . ” I replied with an unhelpful shrug.

While Stephan took care of business behind the counter, my ears detected a sweet funky vibe overhead courtesy of the in-store music play. I thought I recognized the tune from the 1970s playing, but I could not place it. I looked up at the ceiling where the music was coming from. So did Stephan.

“I know that song,” I said. “Kind of like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition . . .'”

“But not quite,” he completed the sentence. “I know what you mean.”

I know what you mean: suddenly I looked at Stephan in a new light, as a member of the universal brotherhood of music.

“The song might be Billy Preston,” I said. “I think the music source is too far away for Shazam to recognize it. But isn’t it a great tune?”

He smiled in agreement, pulled out his own phone, and found the Shazam music discovery app on it.

“Hang on,” he said. “I know I’ve heard this song, too. I think I’m tall enough to get Shazam to pick up the song from the ceiling.”

The app didn’t load right away on his phone. A customer was behind me in line.

“I don’t want to hold you up,” I said.

He nodded his head and smiled. “We got this.”

We got this. Now we were a team on a quest to uncover a funky musical mystery.

He got Shazam to work, held up his phone to the ceiling, waited a moment, and smiled victoriously.

“You’re right! “Outa-Space’ by Billy Preston!”

We smiled and high fived like two guys at a concert, not at a Trader Joe’s checkout line. I even jumped up and down. Man, I had not heard that song for some time.

Little moments of empathy. Like Stephan empathizing with my love of music, and, I think, sensing that perhaps I was not having the best of days. A human connection made.

If you shop at Trader Joe’s, you’re probably not surprised to hear my story. Its stores are more than attractive products with reasonable prices. They’re all about the human experience. The people who work at the Trader Joe’s near me (its address is 122 Ogden Avenue, Downers Grove) always seem like nice folks.

In X, Brian Solis writes, “All business is personal.” It sure is. Trader Joe’s is a $9.4 billion business consisting of hundreds of stores. All it takes is a personal dose of empathy from a cool guy named Stephan to humanize the brand.

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