I stopped by my local Whole Foods the day before Thanksgiving to pick up some appetizers. And as I deliberated at the cheese counter, I couldn’t help but overhear what one cheese monger said loudly to the other: “This lady came up to me complaining about the store. This store’s too small, you don’t carry the things I need. I told her she’d have to talk to customer service. I mean really, I just work here.”

I just work here??! Did I honestly hear someone say that? In Whole Foods? Not only did this guy undermine the Whole Foods brand with his interaction with the original customer, but he made a bad personal decision to relay his story in front of other customers!

As Steve Portigal mentioned in a comment on one of my previous posts, employee authenticity is key to great customer experiences. (To see just how bad an inauthentic customer experience can be, check out my last post, "Worst Online Chat Ever!") But employee authenticity is really only effective if it aligns with a company’s brand attributes. Being an authentic jerk isn’t going to cut it in customer experience land!

A lot of employee behavior comes down to corporate culture — and in his "How To Build A Customer-Centric Culture" report, Paul Hagen mentions two things in particular that I think directly influence employee authenticity. Companies need to:

  • Hire for the right attitudes. In contrast to staff whom I encounter at other grocery stores — where I often can’t even get eye contact or a simple grunt from the guy or gal behind the register — Whole Foods employees are a generally friendly bunch. They also come across as people who care about the environment, social causes, and the food they eat.
  • Provide guidance around branded interactions. One of the things I love about shopping in Whole Foods is that when I ask an employee where the capers are, they just don’t point me in the right direction — they actually walk me over to them. I’ve always assumed this was a management directive for store employees to show that Whole Foods is a “helpful” brand.

But I think there’s one other component that’s key to authenticity. Companies must ultimately:

  • Trust employees to be themselves, right there in the moment. I’ve had all kinds of impromptu conversations with Whole Foods employees over the years, ranging from what I’m planning on cooking for dinner that night to the background on the latest nonprofits chosen for the company’s $0.05 bag credit program. And they've never felt scripted or fake.

Obviously, I think Whole Foods does a lot right in all three of these areas. But somewhere along the way, the company’s efforts to create a great customer experience were lost on that particular cheese guy I encountered. 

What does your company do to encourage authenticity? And how does it handle employees that veer off course?