Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Opinions, in general, are a good thing, but. . .

One thing I have learned over the past couple of decades is that I have the right to complain--pretty much anytime, anywhere. I've also learned that my complaints have no value, nor credibility unless I present them in a certain fashion. If you're not careful, you just sound like you're whining, you'll get a reputation as a "negative" person, and just come across as annoying. I see this all the time. As a supervisor in my profession, I've extended this right to my employees, but there are some limitations to this. I cautioned them that, you can complain all you want, as long as: 1. You keep working while you complain, and 2. you offer some constructive alternatives to whatever it is you don't like. I also believe my employees have the right to disagree with me, again with some limitations: 1. Try to stay positive, respectful, 2. Never yell, stay professional, 3. Never lose site of the fact that I'm still the boss, and my decision will be final. I try to objectively consider opposing points of view, but as the boss, I will ultimately be accountable for the decision--

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Too radical? Too far to the right?

I don't think that anyone who knows me would describe me as conservative (in the political sense). Yet, I've started some posts lately that even Rush Limbaugh might find too far to the right. Writing is cathartic for me--some times I just ramble and the results are not fit to publish. Other times, I'm startled by how intense my feelings are about some things. For example, I wrote a couple of pages recently in favor of the death penalty. The gist of it was that I think we should just "fry them all," clean out our prisons, stop wasting billions of dollars on people who serve no purpose. I equated them to lottery winners--many don't earn their own way before they go to jail, so a twenty year sentence is like winning a jackpot and going off to a resort--when the judge announces the sentence, this is what the criminal hears, "For the next twenty years you will not have a care in the world. We will provide food, shelter, clothing, health care, entertainment, education--and it won't cost you a dime. It will be paid for by the honest, hard-working people who do have a purpose." This is wrong on every level. There's no way to justify the waste of energy, money, resources.

My original post was more detailed and more graphic, so I've deleted it. I think I've made my point.

I also drafted a message about the recent oil spill and decided it was too harsh. There is one irrefutable fact about the disaster--it could have been prevented. I worked on deep sea rigs in the early '70's, just after I got out of the service. I worked on jack-ups and semi-submersibles in the Gulf, and on a drill ship off the coast of Brazil, and I saw the same careless behavior all those many years ago. It's very simple--safe drilling is slower and thus costs more. So, they speed up the process to save money--and put lives and the environment at risk. It's all in the mud.

Another draft, in my 'customer service' series, was about Brand Advantage. Since I work for a big brand, I figured it would be smarter for me to be a little more judicious in expressing my opinion. Again, there's at least one irrefutable truth--when times are tough, or when prices are rising, brands are worth less. People are looking for value and will often, as they are now, settle for lower cost alternatives. They still want to fly like Mike, but for now will forgo the Air Jordans for the look-alike version at the discount shoe store. Catchy phrases, sexy ads, won't make the difference.

I deleted one other draft today, but the topic is another about which I have a strong opinion, so I'll probably go back to it. The topic is "isolationism." I got the idea doing history home work with my son. He was learning about the Monroe Doctrine and it just came to me--this is the answer to all of our problems. And, I mean ALL of our problems.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

How to succeed in retail--beat my leftover pork chop casserole

If you ask a manager, or just about any employee at any level, "What's your number 1 priority?" you'll get lots of good answers. Depending on the latest communication from their boss, the common answers might be, "Quality," or "Safety" or "Customer Service" or "cut expenses" or "build sales." But, those are all wrong. The number one priority of every employee, in every business, is to generate PROFITS. We, business managers, have learned that in order to make the most profits, over the long term, we have to do certain things right. The top three things that we must do right are the simple elements of success in retail, and they are:
  1. We must offer quality products at competitive prices (not necessarily cheap or cheapest, but fair)
  2. We must maintain a clean, safe, inviting facility
  3. We must provide respectful customer service
Some people think they have some unique product offering that will allow them to bend or even ignore the other rules--I can't think of an example--can you? "Unique" is often mis-used to mean "a little different" and that's not accurate. They, the business owners and operators, even try to convince themselves--so, in their minds, at least, they eliminate some of the competition. But, along the route I take across town each day there are at least 100 places to buy Winston Lights, Snickers, or a six-pack of Budweiser.  Food is the same--I'll bet, for example, that if you asked McDonald's leaders to list their top five competitors, the list would not include the left-over pork chop casserole in my refrigerator. And, they would be wrong. This may sound familiar: I called my wife, mid-afternoon yesterday, and part of the the conversation went like this, "What do you want to do for dinner?" "I don't know, what do you want to do?" "You feel like cooking?" "Not really. We do have some left-over pork chops, though." "Or, we could go out. What about Chinese?" "No, we had Chinese a couple of days ago. What about Italian?" "No, too heavy. I had a big lunch. What about that place close to the house--they have good salads?" "I have some errands to run. I could pick up fast-food, how about a taco salad?" "You know, I wanted to look at that thing at that store, why don't we meet at the mall and we'll just grab something in the food court?" We have this conversation every day, in some form or fashion, so the off-shoot is that every food outlet in town is competing with every other food joint in town, and with the left-overs in my 'frig' whether they want to admit it or not. So, element #1 of "success in retail" is fairly common. Price didn't enter our conversation, specifically, but they're all "competitive." Some are higher, some are lower, but fair.

That brings us to element #2, the facility. Now you might be thinking that this doesn't count with on-line shopping, but you'd be wrong about that, too. The key words are "safe" and "inviting." We have to feel safe on a web-site before we key in a credit card number or before we give out any personal info--and, though not exactly the same as our physical safety, it's certainly an issue that retailers must address. But, once again, is a McDonald's restaurant safer than my kitchen? Can you think of any food place "unique" in it's safety? The newest place is often a little more inviting, but the newness eventually wears off. Then what? The facility will not consistently offer a competitive advantage. But, element #3 will.

Rotten service is pervasive. And, it's always the fault of the senior managers of a company. Good service is rare, but where it exists, it's the fault of senior management, as well. In other words, the boss determines the level of respect that trickles down to customers. If he/she treats employees with respect, a 'culture' of respect will grow and make its way to the 'customer facing' employees. Sounds simple doesn't it? It is simple, but it's not easy. That "culture of respect" is nearly non-existent. Most businesses operate in what I call a "protectionist" culture. They have "progressive discipline" programs, but no corresponding rewards programs. They don't do a good job documenting good performance because those documents might make it harder to fire somebody if the need ever arises. I've been told "don't confuse effort with results," which stifles initiative, discourages creativity, and creates a fear of risk taking--all bad for businesses, but reduces risk and protects managers. To really foster a culture of respect, we have to reward risk taking, encourage creativity, and offer support when effort doesn't quite get the desired results. That type of behavior is infectious--and translates to respect for our customers. I think most people believe that they work hard for their money, and I know that when it comes time to part with some of our hard-earning money, we have lots of choices. So, when I choose your place over all the others, I should get some respect. Your CSR's won't deliver that respect unless you consistently, fervently, display respect for them.
There you have it, the secrets to success in retail. Next, I'll talk about "Brand Advantage" and the value of a brand.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ron and the Pajama Man

This is an example of over-the-top, almost beyond belief, good customer service.

This really happened--about a month after opening a new store in Northern California, we had an audit scheduled so I was in the store very early, about 5:30 AM. I was sitting, talking to the manager, and heard the door open. I looked up and saw a tall, 40-ish man wearing pajamas, and fluffy slippers, walking past the counter. He dropped two dollars on the counter and walked on to the coffee bar. Ron, the manager, had obviously seen this before. The Pajama Man, as he became known, poured himself a cup of coffee, reached into the pastry case, pulled out an apple fritter, and headed out the door (I knew his purchase was an even $2). Out of habit, and a little irritated that Ron didn't do it first, I said, "Thank you Sir." Pajama man grunted, not loudly, and kept walking.

I looked at Ron as the door swung closed and asked, "What the heck was that all about?" Ron said, "The man started coming in about the third day we were open. The first day he stopped at the counter to pay for his stuff, but since then it was the same as today, two bucks on the counter, coffee, apple fritter, and he's gone. I think he lives right behind us, so it's a short walk for him--and he's in here every day, 7 days a week, since we opened." I said, "Cool."

About six months later, I was on my way to work, very early again, about 6:00 AM, and I got a "911" page. This was before cell-phones, so my employees were trained to call my pager and key in 911 and the store's three digit store ID number. I didn't get them often, but when I did it was not good. Historically, the 911 page meant the store had been robbed. This page came from the new store. I wasn't far away, but my heart was pounding as I imagined the worst possible scenario. I sped up a little, as much as I could--it was very foggy, thick Tule fog, famous in Northern California. As I pulled onto the lot, my heart sank--there were California Highway Patrol officers standing at the front door. I jumped out of the car, reaching for my ID, and asked, "Is anybody hurt?" The officer said, "Doesn't look like it. The manager ran out the door just as we walked in. He said he had an emergency, asked us to please wait, that his boss would be here any minute. So, you're the boss?" I told him I was as he looked at my company ID. He said, "Let's check out the inside and if it looks OK, we'll hand it over to you." We checked out the store and everything looked fine. No money missing, no merchandise missing that I could tell, so I thanked the officers and they left. By that time, there were customers waiting to come in, so I starting taking care of them. A few minutes later, I saw the manager zoom past the front of the store on his bicycle (he lived a few blocks away and often rode his bike to work). After a minute or so, he walked in the door, soaking wet, muddy, flushed face, and said, "Am I fired?" I said, "Probably. What the hell is going on?"

Here's his story: Ron said, "It was about 5:30. Pajama man came in, like he has everyday for six months, more than 180 times, and as soon as I saw him I panicked. There was a construction crew in here a few minutes earlier and they cleaned out the pastry case. I was trying to think of what I was going to do. He poured his coffee and reached in the case and then noticed it was empty. He put his coffee down and walked out. Didn't say a word. Then, just as he rounded the corner these CHiPs drove up and I got an idea. I paged you and then I ran out and told them I had an emergency and asked them to wait until you got here. I didn't slow down to give them a chance to say no, and I jumped on my bike and rode (two miles, round trip, in blinding fog) to the other store to get an apple fritter. I got back and jumped over the fence to give Pajama man his apple fritter. He must have made his own coffee because he was sitting on his deck drinking it when I got there. I know it was extreme, but I panicked. It wasn't just the 180 straight days, his whole family comes here, he and his wife both buy gas here, the two kids are in here all the time, his wife just yesterday bought $50 worth of ice and soda for a party they're having. I'm sorry I just didn't know what else to do."

All I could say was, "So, I should tell the California Highway Patrol that the emergency you had was pastry-related?"

I didn't fire Ron. I'm confident he realized, after the fact, that his actions were too "extreme" as he said, and better planning would keep this from happening again. I had him call our pastry vendor and make sure they left an extra fritter in a box, behind the counter, just in case. Secretly, I was extremely proud that he was willing to go the extra mile (or two, in the fog, on his bike) to provide excellent service.

**URGENT SERVICE UPDATE** It's just too easy. My wife tried to return a pair of defective shoes to Rack Room Shoe store today, and the cashier was rude and incompetent. She, un-named cashier, snapped at my wife, "You have to have the box or your receipt." So, my wife produced the receipt. Then the cashier said, "It's normal wear and tear. You can't return them." My wife said, "I'm not looking for a full refund, but these are Nike shoes--that cost $65 and are less than two months old. Some kind of plastic piece in the heel is broken and my son can't wear them." The cashier repeated, "It's normal wear and tear. You can come back when the manager is here, if you want." My wife, not the most patient person in the world, asked when the manager would be there, got the date, time, cashier's name, and told her she would return." She bought another pair of Nike shoes for the son, another $65.

Rack Room has always done a pretty good job for us. My standards are lower than in years past, so I'm satisfied that they have a good product, decent prices, and the service is not rotten. But, sometimes, service is rotten and someone should take note. The cashier was trained to put-off customers, or she saw her manager do this at some point, or she was simply not empowered to provide good service. Whatever the excuse, it's not acceptable. We'll take it up with the manager, but I'm not optimistic he/she will be any better.

Customer Dis-Service

I just attended an award event where my company gave awards to operators that gave good service over the past year. It was a nice event, nice people, but alas, they are a very small group. Service, good service, is woefully rare in the world, and is especially lacking in certain industries. Since I've been in one of those industries for so many years I have a million stories about just how bad it can be--not so many stories about how good it can be, but a few. So, I'm posting a series of anecdotes, mostly factual, about customer service. The first one is about "Mark and the French Fries."

I was working for one of the big burger chains in about 1980-something. Mark was one of my assistant managers, a nice guy, but like a lot of people dealing with the public, had a tendency to get a little defensive when confronted with a problem. We were very busy, one day around lunch time, and I heard shouting coming from the front counter area. I hurried around from the kitchen just in time to hear a customer shout at Mark, "I'll never come back here again!" I was too late to intervene and watched from a distance as the customer grabbed his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson and headed out the door (I had seen him in there before). I looked at Mark and as I asked what happened, I got the distinct impression that he was really proud of himself--he looked "puffed-up," had a little smile on his face, like a kid that had just done something special in front of his Mom. He said, "the guy said we shorted him an order of fries, but I knew we didn't because I put the order together myself. I wasn't going to let him get over on me!" I was stunned--all this over an order of fries? Mark went on, "He might as well have called me a liar. I know I put the fries on his tray." Before he could continue, I interrupted, "Go sit in my office and wait for me. I'll be there in just a minute." He looked startled--I'm sure that's not what he expected me to say, but he turned and went back toward the office. I ran out the front and managed to get to the angry customer before he drove away. My apology didn't quite smooth things over, but it helped a little.

I went back inside and sat down to talk to Mark. I wasn't too sure how to get my point across, but I've always believed direct is the best approach. So, I started by telling him he had really screwed up, that I couldn't imagine a worse response to the customer's complaint, that this may have cost us tens of thousands of dollars--and that got his attention, so he asked, "What do you mean 'tens of thousands?'" I explained, "Look at the customer--three generations of a family, who were regular customers. If we handled them well, right, they might continue to shop with us for decades, even generations beyond that. The four of them came in about once a week and spent $16, more or less. That works out to $832 a year, but could be more--there's another son; if he gets married has a family, and we're still treating them well, it could grow to $1000, or more, for many years to come. You put that in jeopardy over a 39 cent order of fries. Do you think you handled this the best way?"

Mark admitted he screwed up, and I think he learned a valuable lesson. There's a big picture, one of the keys to success in retail, "You have to respect the person standing at the counter with money in their hands trying to give it to you!"

Next installment "Ron and the Pajama Man," coming soon.