I needed a job. I had a roof over my head, but all I had was pickle juice and mustard in the fridge and a jar of cake frosting in the pantry. I was hungry.
I was a 17-year-old kid looking to pay my rent, a starving student who needed a job, so I did enough yard work for my parents to buy some gas money, then drove around town dropping off resumes everywhere I could around town. The usual places, like fast food joints and department stores, threw my application in with the dozens of others and told me they’d get back to me.
One place was different. It was a small chain grocer, Holiday Market, and I asked to speak with someone in charge so I could introduce myself and apply. Instead of filing away my resume and application, Jim O’Brien, the store manager, shook my hand and asked me to sit down then and there to meet me. That felt refreshing, if not a little awkward.
We talked for an hour; he got up to deal with store business a handful of times. But he got to know me, and before I left that day, I was filling out a personality profile, dozens of questions long, about how I would think or react in specific situations when it came to dealing with customers. I would later find out, after getting the job the next day, that that test wasn’t just an HR ploy, but part of the fiber of Holiday’s customer service culture.
“Raving Fans” and the Vision
Holiday was, at the time I was there as a courtesy clerk (and later checker, produce clerk, freight crew, and head clerk), a 24-store chain with locations in rural Northern California towns. I worked at Store 15 in Paradise, where I went to high school. From my first day on the job there, I learned about the company’s vision — it was hard to avoid it, because there was a 6-foot poster plastered to the stockroom wall with “OUR VISION” on it. I still remember it, verbatim. They wanted people to say, “We have a Holiday in our town!” or “I wish we had a Holiday in our town!”
To do that, they had a five-point list of must-accomplish goals, and at the very top was “world-famous friendliness.” Holiday wanted to create “raving fans,” a term from the book of the same name by Ken Blanchard for folks who felt allegiance and loyalty to the brand in a way competitors couldn’t claim. I can recall it as clearly as if it’s happening right now: The company president, Richie Morgan, did the noob employee training himself at the first meeting, because he knew that we scrubby little courtesy clerks were the first impressions of his company his customers would have. He HAD to make it clear to us what his vision was, and how we needed to execute it.
Richie’s “why” was that he wanted to maintain a community-driven reputation that had been part of his family’s business since the 1960s. His “how” was by treating people right. I talk on this podcast a lot about how “doing the right thing” means many different things to different people, and for Richie, it meant taking action to show people they meant something to him.
We had a regular customer, Dorothy, who was an absolute dragon of an elderly woman. She was flat-out mean – not cantankerous, not ornery, just mean. She was rude to courtesy clerks (which is what I was at the time), snippy with checkers, and difficult – she did one big $300 order every Saturday, and wanted everything double paper-bagged. She scowled at me in our first encounter, when I asked if she wanted her gallon of milk bagged, too.
“You must be a new one,” I remember her seething at me as she signed her checkbook. “I wonder how long they’ll keep you around.”
Our whole weekend crew knew to be prepared for her and her caretaker, who basically held her purse, pushed her cart, and read labels to her.
One weekend, I happened to answer the phone at the store, and it was Dorothy on the other end. She’d broken her leg and her caretaker was ill, so she couldn’t make her trip to the market. Instead, she wanted us to deliver her massive order to her. That wasn’t a service we provided.
I asked our manager Jim what I should tell her. He didn’t flinch.
“Take her list. I’ll buy your gas money.”
I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Dorothy, half of it repeating myself because she would interrupt me or would have trouble hearing me. Jim (again, this is the store manager) covered my other clerking tasks, like running to get carts, bagging for big orders, and spot mopping around the store. We rang up the order on a register and suspended it, and then I jumped in my 4Runner with her groceries and drove to her house, where I unloaded it all for her and put her food into her fridge and pantries. She grumbled about me making sure I didn’t smash her bread or eggs, or bruise her fruit, and also threatened to report me to my boss because she thought she heard “nasty rap” in my car when I pulled up. Finally, she went over the receipt — I helped her read that, too — and she cut a check.
As I opened the screen door to let myself out and head back to the store, she stopped me with something I never expected:
“I do thank you, dear.”
I drove back to Holiday, we finished her order, and we planned on doing the same ordeal next weekend, and every one after that, until her caretaker was feeling better or her leg healed.
But we never saw Dorothy again. She died just a couple of months later.
Her caretaker came in shortly after, with a bouquet of flowers for our clerks, and wanted to let us know that that weekly trip to Holiday was Dorothy’s big event of the week every time she came in. She knew Dorothy was prickly, but told us that bit of interaction was pretty much all she ever got anymore. That little bit of insight made that one crack, that one “thank you,” so much more important to me. In retrospect, it very much feels like that was probably the nicest expression of gratitude she could convey. And we’re the ones who earned it.
“The right way”
I think about Dorothy and Holiday when I think of customer service. Dorothy was never going to be a Raving Fan, at least not in the way Richie Morgan would’ve described one. This was pre-Facebook, but this wasn’t a woman who would’ve evangelized for Holiday online. But Richie and Jim knew — and taught me that day — that client service isn’t done because you expect gratitude as an end result. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
I still consider client service through that lens, and I get inspired when I see people executing great customer care in different ways. The “whys” certainly vary — whether a nonprofit is giving back to veterans because they want to show appreciation, or a designer lends their creative services to a client because they truly love seeing someone else get excited about their talent — but the “hows” are really what excite me.
You’ll notice on the podcast that I ask those two questions a lot: “What do you have to do to execute great client service,” and “Why is it important to you to do that?” In my head, I’ll always have a vision of skinny, 17-year-old me unloading groceries from a gravel driveway for an 85-year-old woman as my example of client service, and it makes me wonder about the stories other people have to tell. How did they get to this point? What makes them think it’s so critical to delight their customers? Why do they do this?
The answers to those questions are the reason I do this podcast. I hope you find it all as interesting as I do, and if you’re a business owner looking for some inspiration, I hope you find it from the stories our guests share with us.
I truly appreciate you subscribing to and downloading the podcast, wherever you get it, and if you really like it I’d be so grateful for a favorable review on iTunes. You can listen here. If you are interested in talking to us on the podcast to tell us how you’re crushing it in customer service, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to chat with you.