Holiday Stress Busters

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It's the busiest season of the year — and the most stressful. If end-of-the-year sales activity can make or break your bottom line, success to a large extent depends on effective customer engagement by a motivated staff.

Too often, alas, frustrated and distracted employees deal poorly with the public. That can affect revenues. Customers are less likely to buy when the staff is clearly not having a good time. And profits can soften further when frazzled employees call in sick, leaving a skeleton crew to deal with customers frustrated by reduced service levels.

What causes holiday stress? For starters, employees are under pressure to keep up with the season’s requisite parties and shopping trips — events that need to be shoe horned into schedules already stretched by extended working hours. At the same time, a greater number of customers are clamoring for attention. Those customers, feeling pressure from their own holiday activities, tend to be less forgiving about employee errors and omissions. The result: Plenty of angst.

“Everything comes together during the holiday season to create a high level of stress in the workplace,” said Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a consultancy in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Calm Your Team

You can take steps to reduce the level of stress in your own organization. Get started by seeking advice from the people on the front lines who often have the best sense of the bad things that can happen during the holiday season.

“Ask employees for recommendations on ways to reduce stress,” suggested Anne Obarski, a business consultant based in Dublin, Ohio. 

Here are a few ideas you might hear: • Try to accommodate the employees’ packed routines. Ask, “What schedule works for you? We will try to work around that.” • Offer shopping time. Your employees need to do their own shopping. But when? Finding the hours can be particularly difficult for those dedicated personnel who want to give your organization their best efforts. Why not give each employee two hours of paid leave they can use to get their own shopping done? And encourage them to shop early, so they are not stressed out the last week before Christmas. • Decompress. Encourage employees to take their scheduled breaks and lunch hours. “Consider having lunch catered the last couple of weekends before Christmas,” Fleener said. “That way, employees don’t have to leave the workplace. They can go to a quiet back room and relax with a TV or music playing.” • Staff up. Make sure there are enough people on board at peak hours. • Schedule on-duty managers. Make sure someone is responsible for running the shop at all times. “If you are not careful your business can become a runaway train,” Fleener said. “Always have a designated engineer who spots and resolves problems.” Example: Spotting a stressed customer, the manager might pull the individual aside and deal one-on-one with any problem. • Create a relaxed environment. Explore ideas, such as providing soft drinks and cookies, playing soothing holiday background music. • Have fun. Customers will visit a fun shop. And customers won’t have fun unless employees are having fun. So why not plan for it?

Creating a fun shop environment means more than holding a party. Make it an ongoing effort. Maybe you award a weekly worst customer pin to the employee who deals with the most difficult client. Maintain interest by changing the activity in some way each week.

Practice Makes Perfect

Rehearse routines for dealing effectively with frazzled customers, Obarski suggested. Start by asking your employees to recall the most frustrating situations from last year’s holiday season. Perhaps a fellow threatened to post an online review slamming your organization?

“For each scenario discuss an appropriate employee response,” Obarski said. “Then rehearse it. Have one employee pretend to be the difficult customer and let another employee walk through the suggested sequence.”

This kind of advance preparation can smooth the way for customer engagements, defusing tensions and facilitating more sales.

Once the season is underway, follow through on your great preparations by reminding people of what they have learned. 

“Get together each morning before you open,” suggested Tom Shay, a consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Discuss what is going to happen, and remind everyone that customers will be stressed.”

Top Down

Success starts at the top. You can’t expect your employees to be stress-free if you are a nervous wreck. Take steps now to get yourself in a positive mindset.

“First and foremost, try to eliminate distractions before the holidays begin,” Fleener said. “Get as much of your business in shape as you can, and get your office cleaned up so you are in a position to focus on your customers and your employees.”

Be an early bird.

“Try getting to your desk a half hour early to knock out any work that needs to be done before the shop opens,” Fleener suggested. “When you plan for a good successful day, you are much more likely to have one. So outline your day in detail. A couple extra minutes in planning can make all the difference.”

Reduce your own stress by assigning some tasks to others. Delegation is critically important during the holiday season, Obarski said.

“Consider assigning good people to each critical business area. Start training your best people early,” he said. “Keep asking them ‘How can I help you get better at this?’”

Don’t neglect your personal life. 

“Maintain your outside schedule, and keep doing whatever it is that keeps you grounded,” Fleener said. “Maybe it’s going to the gym or to church. Maybe it’s taking walks. Don’t let yourself get so busy that you are not doing those things, because they help you deal with stress.”<

Reducing holiday stress can improve profits by creating positive dynamics among managers, employees and the public.

“Customers do not patronize your business just to buy stuff,” Shay said. “They want the experience of engaging with employees in fun and rewarding ways.”

Creating a stress-free workplace will help them do just that.

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