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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 car

e of your customers”. I was reminded of this during my recent search for windshield wiper blades at a local auto parts store.

I came in from the wind and the sleet, and entered the department located at the rear of the store hoping to find an index where I could cross-reference the vehicle to a selection of wiper blades. I found an electronic one, but it wasn’t working, so I turned my attention to the employee behind the service counter. She looked away.

I asked if she could assist. Her response surprised me. “I’m in the middle of something,” she said, without looking up. “Pardon? Pardon me?” I asked, convinced I’d misunderstood her. “There’s an electronic one on the shelf there but it’s broken,” she added, without lifting her head. “I’m in the middle of something,” she repeated.

I’m of the opinion that most employees want to do a good job so, when she disappeared without attempting to locate someone who could help me, I was slack-jawed. I was in a rush. I didn’t have time to drive across town for relief. Trying to be resourceful, I turned to my smartphone thinking that the vendor websites might be helpful. After several minutes of searching, I found a searchable webpage that looked promising but then a second employee rescued me. Together, we returned to the same service counter and he used the computer terminal to perform the necessary lookup. He had me out the door in a few short minutes. All was good.

I never saw the first employee again. Presumably, she was still in the middle of whatever it was she was in the middle of.

I’ll never know the circumstances that lead to my first exchange at the service counter that morning. Was the employee told, by her supervisor, that stocking shelves was to be her sole priority? Was she directed to focus on this task and not on customers? If this was the case, by some measure, she was doing her job. I’m pretty sure that she wasn’t told to ignore the customer but that may be what she heard. Given that, was my experience the result of poor training, poor systems, poor management, or poor communication? Likely, shades of all four. 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.

Employers remember, customer facing employees - especially those in the retail sector - are often new to the workforce. In many cases, they’re working their first jobs and need support and guidance. This is especially true in today’s "gotcha culture" where the short-tempered turn to their smartphones to exact revenge. Back to Richard Branson’s quote, what is your business model doing for you? Are you 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 your employees your customers won’t support you.

- Norm Adams

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