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I’m in the Middle of Something …

Richard Branson, the British Billionaire who founded the Virgin Group and it’s 400+ companies, is widely quoted as saying “if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers”. I was reminded of this during my recent search for wiper blades at a well known auto parts chain store in our city's downtown.

It was an ugly driving day - a harsh wind was blowing big flakes of wet snow and with the temperature at the freezing point, driving had become an icy challenge. I was on my way to pickup a friend at the airport and needed new wipers.

Familiar with the store, I entered the department not knowing what size of wipers I needed. I found the electronic self-service tool but it wasn't working so I approached an employee behind the service counter. I asked if she could help. Her response surprised me. She didn't greet me, instead she just stared into her computer screen and said “I’m in the middle of something.” I was convinced I’d misunderstood her. “I’m in the middle of something,” she repeated. Throughout the whole 10-second exchange she never once made eye contact. She disappeared a moment later leaving me staring at an empty service counter which now seemed much larger than before.

Amazed and confused, I turned back to face the wide assortment of wiper blades when I was rescued by a second employee who actually wasn't in the middle of something. Together, we returned to the service counter and he used the same computer terminal to perform the necessary lookup. After a few short minutes, I was on my way to the cashier and back outside to install my wipers in the wind. He was great.

I’ll never know the circumstances that lead to my first exchange but I know that when employees don’t perform, the reasons aren’t always obvious. Often (not always) they rest with supervisors, many of whom haven’t been trained themselves. Was she was directed by a supervisor that serving customers wasn't important that day? Maybe she was given an explicit task and a deadline. Either way, I’m confident that she wasn’t directed to ignore the customer. So what was at the root of our exchange? Was it poor training, poor systems, poor management, or poor communication? Likely, shades of all four.

Customer facing employees - especially those in the retail service sector - are often new to the workforce. In many cases, they’re working their first jobs and need support and guidance. If you're an employer or supervisor, what are you doing to support your front-line employees? Too often it's too little. Too often, I hear supervisors parrot expressions from the supervisors of their youth. They lead with "pull your head out of your *ss" or "grow up" and or, (my favourite) they embark on a personal story which starts with "when I was your age ... ".

Back to Richard Branson’s quote, what is your business model doing for you? Leaders, are you truly supporting your front-line employees and their supervisors or are you telling them to ‘figure it out’? The answers are important because, ultimately, if you’re not supporting them, they won't support you and you have no one else to blame.

Norm Adams, MBA, has more than 25-years experience in business. One of his first jobs was working in a lumberyard where he damaged the brand new pickup of a key customer, while driving a forklift. It was a memorable day! Norm can be reached directly at

As a footnote to this story, Norm received a $50 Gift Certificate from the auto parts store. When he went to collect it a few days later from the cashier, she rolled her eyes and said "Oh yeah right - you're THAT guy." He left the store, and gave away his GC to the first person who walked in. He hasn't been back since.

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Shall we open the conversation to include the focus on drive-thru service, to the complete detriment of in-store customers and their experience?

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