I have had a job since I was in 6th grade, but when I turned 15 I got my first hourly position with the grocery store up the street. It was a right of passage. I got the job by being persistent. When I accompanied my grandmother on her weekly grocery run I simply asked the store manager if I could work there. I stood at the customer service counter and asked who I needed to talk to about a job.
Soon, the manager would pop out of the back room, and after a couple of questions, the inevitable response. “Naw, kid, you are only 15. You have to be 16 to work here part time.” I finally got the job by wearing him down, I think. It was after a couple of months, and several eye rolls, that I remember him saying, “You must really want to work here. You will have to sign some forms and you can’t work past 8:00 p.m. until you are sixteen. Fill out this application. You start the day after school is out for the summer.”
I’d like you to know at four in the morning
Things are coming mine
All I’ve seen, all I’ve done
And those I hope to find
C.F. Turner, Bachman–Turner Overdrive
Until this time I delivered papers twice a week for the local newspaper. I used to love the six to twelve bucks a week I would get for delivering the weekly paper and the shopper. It was enough that I could usually buy something at the gas station or at the local Ben Franklin. Now, I was going to move up to the big leagues. Minimum wage. In four hours, I could make as much as it took me a whole week to make at my previous job.
That was my first life lesson regarding pay and an early economics lesson. It was a fixed pay rate at the newspaper. You were paid on the number of papers you delivered. The only way to make more money was to deliver more papers. I quickly learned that one could only deliver so many papers on foot, and you could only handle so many newspapers on a bike. My wage had been capped, so I knew it was time to try something else. The grocery store seemed as good a choice as any. There was no shortage of work to be done. If you worked harder than your peers, there was some degree of stability. Once you left the store, you were ‘off’. Well, aside from the occasional mandatory break room meeting,
I learned many work and life lessons in the break room of the grocery store, but one lesson about customer service stuck with me. If someone asks you for the location of a product, it is your job to take them to it. That means: Stop what you are doing, let the customer know that you can help them find the item, and take them to it. It was your job to take up the search on behalf of the customer. The search ended when the customer was satisfied that you had done everything you possibly could to assist them– If that meant searching for it yourself, all the better.
Some of my coworkers at the store failed at this task. They would tell the customer that the item was in aisle 3, then glance back down at what they were doing. The customer would continue their search, only occasionally locating what they were searching for. The odds of making that sale were slim. Our boss understood that if that customer can’t find it, they can’t buy it.
He also understood that, for the part-timers, customer service was just as important as knowing the products in the store. It was our job to know where things were. Fortunately, I had a good memory. If I didn’t know where something was, I was going to spend time stocking shelves until I did. I loved the gratitude people showed when you quickly found something that they had spent ten minutes looking for.
My boss considered the customer first because he knew that caring for the customer would help his business. He would say. “We aren’t in the grocery business. We are in the people business. People just happen to eat.” He cared enough for his employees to convey that message and did everything he could to help his team emulate it.
I revisit this lesson often. There are successes and failures. Every situation is different. If I could sit with him now, I would share the relevance of that philosophy today.