Supermarket management interviews, whether at a graduate level, or at an established management level, are competitive affairs. Supermarkets, out of all areas of retail, offer the greatest variety of career opportunities, and the roles, although demanding, are the most rewarding in the sector. If you're not fond of long hours, gritty hands on work and an immense variety of task - from the sublimely cerebral to the ridiculously physical - then you're looking in the wrong place. However, if you're determined to break into this rewarding and challenging sector, then being able to talk about service at interview is a must.
Walk in the shoes of a customer
Your interviewer will expect you to be able to think empathetically about the customer journey. Start with your own experiences - when you shop for your groceries, what irritates or delights you? Think through the customer's view of the shop as she (don't forget - the household shop remains mainly under the control of females) passes through the full shopping experience. How about the initial impression created arriving in the car park - are there trollies available? Can those who need them, get into dedicated disabled or mother and baby parking spaces? Be prepared to talk through how such experiences impact the customer, and how as a manager, you could help overcome these issues.
Think for the specific chain you're interviewing for
What are the average customer's touch points? That is, when, during their shop, do they necessarily need to come into contact with store employees? (for example, when visiting the deli counter or butcher, and most certainly at the checkout). How can a colleague's interaction at these points enhance or damage the brand? Remember the specific needs of supermarket customers - visiting with kids in tow, picking up large quantities of goods, or at the other end of the spectrum, older customers popping in for a few bits and a chat - staff have to be ready to deal with both extremes, and as a manager you have to coach and support your team to deliver.
A level of product knowledge is needed to be able to support when a product is requested but out of stock, or to answer customer queries. Colleagues who can offer advice and appear passionate about their departments will be seen by customers as the most helpful.
Be a Team player
If you're seeking a management job in supermarket retail, your role will be to unite your team - who will be of varied age, dedication, experience and interest level - to deliver service excellence, regardless of what might be going on at home or how an individual employee might be feeling on any given day. The ability to get along with, motivate and inspire all sorts, is paramount, and your understanding of your customers' needs will be the starting point in working out how to manage your team.
Understand active and silent service
Service as a whole can be considered to split into two different but complementary areas - 'silent service' is the process and structure designed to ensure that there are products on the shelves and people manning the checkouts. It is the working practices that stop assistants from filling shelves in a way that disrupts the customer journey, and ensures that there are trollies and baskets, fresh bread and key product lines available from the moment the shop opens until the moment it closes.
Then there is 'active service' - the interaction between employee and customer which makes the customer experience positively memorable. This might be a simple nod hello, a helpful piece of advice on the deli counter, assistants who know their products and are confident to talk to customers if approached and asked for information. A considerate checkout operator demonstrating adequate politeness and some common sense at the end of the customer shop is essential to win in the 'active service' arena.
For supermarkets, putting the correct processes and systems in place to deliver silent service requires investment in training, and an interest and curiosity about the customer journey in the individual store. Managers will be expected to consider how they might redesign processes to make the customer's experience better, rather than thinking primarily about how to make the shop operation easier; for example, improving ways of working when filling shelves to ensure colleagues cause minimum disruption to customers.
Service excellence requires emotional engagement, and this is something many managers feel uncomfortable about. As an aspiring manager, you need to show you feel able to lead and inspire your team on service - moving from a traditional focus on sales figures, to a focus on delivering a motivated and knowledgeable sales team; and demonstrating an understanding of this point will impress.
Consider colleagues and customers
Being able to think across stakeholders will show your understanding of the trends in modern supermarket retail. No longer is it enough to simply be present on every street corner. Customers have to actually want to shop with you, as the UK supermarket sector is saturated already, and customers vote with their feet. Never have loyal customers been more important to supermarkets - the margins in food retail are slim, price matching policies mean that customers leave price at the door, and the deciding factor about whether a customer experience converts them to being loyal or puts them off for life, is the service they receive in the store. No pressure!
Show Empathy to your community
Showing an awareness for community issues is important also, and as a manager you would have a role to play in building trust in your community and the public at large, particularly following recent scandals. Winning your customers' trust is a vital part of customer service, and the horse meat debacle and the continuing publicity about squeezed suppliers means that supermarkets are acutely aware of the need to play fair, be transparent and trustworthy - from the top of the organisation to every team member walking a shop floor.
A final essential, if unintuitive, aspect of talking about service is to be aware of legal issues such as pricing requirements and food dating and storage. These necessitate dry and demanding processes which you will need to lead and manage, but can make the difference between winning a community's trust and being shut down or heavily fined.
Whichever supermarket you're looking at, and depending on the level at which you apply, individual role requirements will vary - however, the one thing that is viewed as vital in all roles in stores and even in office based roles, is a very good understanding of and passion for the levels of customer service that will keep the industry alive. Take the time to think through this aspect of your desired role before the interview and you will be set to impress when you're asked your opinion.
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