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Counter Points: Employee Cellphone Use and Customer Checks

Posted: Jan. 30, 2012, 5:45 p.m. EST

By Barry Berman

In my role as head of the NexPet co-op, I lead groups of pet store owners and managers in roundtable discussions in which they can share ideas. I also host an email exchange in which members talk to each other nearly every day. Some recent exchanges focused on how to deal with staffers’ cellphones and with customers’ checks.

One recent conversation was launched by the owner of large stores in Texas; he had been struggling—his word—with employees’ use of cell phones while at work. Preventing staff from slipping into the back room in order to respond to texts had become a constant distraction for his managers.

First, they tried counseling individuals when they were caught, but after a short while these people would resume texting on the job. When he asked his fellow retailers for input, he had already decided to compel staffers to sign a paper agreeing not to bring their cellphones into the store and to give the store’s land line as their emergency number.

The retailer asking the question was pleasantly surprised to find how many other owners had dealt with this issue. A number of stores provide lockers for every employee to secure their phones and other valuables, with staffers providing their own locks. Phones must be on silent when in the lockers, and staffers sign a form acknowledging the policy.

Employees using cellphones
Banning employee cellphone use in store can help stop customer service problems from happening.
This is not an easy procedure to institute. One retailer in Alabama said they had to fire three people before the rest of the staff began observing it reliably.

Another owner in Connecticut said she has staffers sign the form—which states that violating the cellphone policy once is grounds for dismissal—when they are hired and that she followed through on the threat more than once. She observed that the store may be the first environment staffers have experienced that separated them from their phones.

A Teachable Moment
Are owners or managers allowed to have cellphones in these stores? One owner in South Carolina who does not provide lockers—people just keep their phones with their personal effects—does not allow any manager, including himself, to carry a phone.

Other stores allow managers to have a phone so they can contact people not in the store, e.g., an off-duty staffer. One independent chain in Michigan issues cellphones to managers for company business to eliminate any appearance of favoritism.

Implementing a cellphone ban is a great opportunity to retrain staff on the principles of how to act on the sales floor in general. Staffers should be reminded constantly of training points, such as greeting all customers as soon as they enter, and striking up a nonbusiness conversation with them and moving the discussion on to what they are looking for.

Most important, every customer should feel there is a person easily available to answer questions at any time anywhere in the store. Say “it’s so important for customers to feel we’re always available for them that we don’t even allow cellphones.”

For more tips on training employees, read Training the Right Way.

Accepting Checks
It’s tough enough for store managers to keep staff members from misbehaving, but it may be tougher to keep customers’ from transgressing when paying—by writing bad checks. How to protect yourself from these was another topic of discussion recently on our group’s email exchange. Store owners have a number of options.

There are check guarantee services, which attempt to collect from the customer after the fact and include some sort of pre-approval process. There are also check recovery services. I know many retailers who were dissatisfied with these services, especially after a few approved checks had insufficient funds and the guarantee company didn’t pay due to some technicality ( e.g., the check was not written properly).

Owners in Michigan and Kentucky reported that local law enforcement agencies will, for a fee, go after bad-check writers, with courts issuing warrants and threatening jail for people who do not make good. This seems to work well with nonsufficient funds (NSF) checks, but if a customer is committing fraud, such as using someone else’s check or stopping the check after the sale, it may be harder to collect.

A Check Becomes a Debit
Check guarantee companies such as Telecheck and Certegy have adapted technology to become more effective. Instead of guaranteeing checks that might be good the day they are written but not the day they are presented to the bank, they convert each check to an immediate electronic funds transfer, which is the equivalent of a debit card transaction.

To accomplish this, stores have a device with which the salesperson enters the sale amount and scans the check and the customer’s driver’s license. The store gives the check back to the customer along with a receipt, and the device prints a receipt for the store’s night closing. The owner can receive an email report of all transactions.

The cost of such services is a percent of the sales, but the charge is similar to what the stores pay for credit-card processing. The check reader carries a monthly fee, too. Two member chains in Michigan reported good results with these programs.

From the consumer’s point of view, this type of transaction offers no advantage over a debit card. In fact, the increasing popularity of debit cards has allowed many stores to stop accepting checks altogether.

Retailers who have stopped accepting checks said it has not hurt business, although many continue to accept checks from long-time customers. A Florida retailer said, “We believe if they have a checking account, they have a debit card, and if they don’t use that they don’t have the money to cover the check.”

Barry Berman of NexPetBarry Berman is president and co-founder of NexPet, a co-op for independent retailers, and Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals, a pet food company. He has served in executive positions for Central Pet and Brinks and entrepreneurial positions in the home furnishings industry. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he is a member of the World Pet Association board of directors. Contact him at 888-653-8021 or

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