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comments from a manager

Does Anyone Have An Extra Pen?

Robert Milner

Customers patronize businesses for a number of reasons: convenience, service, price, selection or loyalty, to name but a few. Out of convenience, I found myself patronizing a particular business on my way to work (6:10 a.m.). Now, out of professional courtesy, I will not mention the name of this business, but suffice it to say that I am confident Tony Stewart's NASCAR displays the name somewhere.
Anyway, after about 15 minutes of shopping (it is amazing how quickly one can shop when very few people are in the store), I was ready to check out. I informed the cashier that this purchase was tax-exempt. I was swiftly handed a form to complete. As I began to complete the form, the pen ran out of ink.
The cashier did not have an extra pen and asked whether two customers behind me had a pen. After receiving negative responses from them (one gentleman even took out a lighter to see if fire would "spark" the pen to write again, but that method proved useless), she called for someone over the PA system. After a four-minute delay (calculated by the time I began checking the time on my watch), a shift supervisor appeared with another pen. After receiving the completed form, the cashier proceeded to take my credit card to process the transaction. Yes, you are correct, there is more than just a cashier needing an extra pen!
Once a credit card is swiped through the machine, the next step is for the tax-exempt form to be validated as well. Seems easy, huh. Well, it seems this particular cash register had a problem with the form and refused to accept it. Obviously, this wasn't the first time this had happened, because the cashier knew all the tricks to try to get the register to accept the form (including putting another slip of paper before the first form as well as resetting the ink cartridge).
After several unsuccessful attempts, the cashier again got on the PA system for assistance. In response, she was informed it would be at least five minutes before help would arrive, as the shift supervisor was busy with another customer. At this point, I was not sure whether the look on my face was worse than those on the faces of the now four customers behind me. In fact, I was getting an eerie feeling that at least two of the four contractors behind me were making plans for me that didn't include going to work!
The cashier apologized to me as well as the others in line. Additionally, she commented to the "group" that it was like this every morning (i.e., management refusing to open two cash registers). For some strange reason the cashier insisted that I call the store manager to complain. Perhaps she thought that since management didn't listen to their employees, they may listen to an irate customer. Finally, after about six minutes, I was told I could leave as the cashier had written down the information and did not want to further interfere with my schedule. I thanked her but said that I would stay until her supervisor cleared things up. Unfortunately, at this point one customer behind me simply walked out and I noticed the others evaluating their purchases. After another two minutes, the cash register finally accepted the form, magically completing the transaction. I was finally free to go, and the other customers could now spend their money!
After giving it some thought, I decided to call the store manager to lodge my complaint. I was told he wasn't in (I know it was him because his name was on the top of the receipt). My name and number were taken, and I was told he would call me back. Two days passed with no return call, so I tried again. Again I was told the store manager wasn't in. I inquired as to a good time to reach this individual, as my previous call had not been returned. The person on the other end of the line assured me the manager would call me back that afternoon. No call that afternoon.
I called again the next morning and was told that the manager wasn't in (now I know why his name was on the top of the receipt -- so that the employees could remember his name). I asked to speak to the highest-ranking management staff member and was given the operations manager. Isn't it strange how financial people get promoted to executive levels first and operations people always seem to have to deal with the problems. The operations manager explained that the store manager attended many meetings outside the store and it was her responsibility, so to speak, to handle the operations at the store. After listening to my complaint, she agreed it was bad customer service, told me she would look into it, and asked me to call her personally if I ever experienced future problems within the store.
While I could comment on several segments of this situation, I believe two of the more important to be: a) Do we supply our employees with all the tools they need; and b) when there is a "situation," what kind of support do we offer?
For years I have preached that good customer service is "all in the details." These could include anything from ensuring an ample supply of pens and paper to providing a safe and efficient work environment.
A good leader knows that it is his or her job to make sure there is nothing preventing staff from doing what they do best -- that is, "their jobs." Years ago, as a senior project manager of a large parking facility, I had a cashier tell me when they had to ring the intercom for a manager, it took that manager five minutes to get back to them. My response was that this couldn't be as it took less than 30 seconds to walk up the ramp to the cashier. Upon quizzing the management staff, they all assured me that they dropped whatever they were doing when the cashiers called for help.
That was exactly the response I wanted to hear. However, one day when I personally called for help from a cashier's booth, I witnessed a manager finishing up his computer game before walking up the ramp. You should have seen the look on his face (priceless) when he realized it was I who needed help, although running a close second was the look on the cashier's face when I told the manager he could punch out for the remainder of the evening so he could finish his computer game at home! For some strange reason, after that particular exchange, the cashiers never had a problem getting support.
Our front-line staff is all we have. If we don't support them, who will? I would even go so far as to say that eventually no one will work for a manager who doesn't support his or her staff. Just think about the NASCAR driver mentioned above. If he had a pit crew that provided the same service I received, I'm not sure he wouldn't consider running them over!
Keep in mind the value of "word of mouth." Studies have explicitly shown that when a customer becomes dissatisfied and leaves an organization, he or she typically tell nine other people about the experience. Those nine people tell others the same story; they, in turn, tell another group of people, and on and on. Add unhappy employees to this mix and the next thing you know you might be reading about it in a magazine. Yep, "word of mouth" is important.

Robert Milner is assistant director of parking at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He can be reached at rmilner@parking.umaryland.edu.

Article Abstract from February, 2004




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