You’ve Got To Have Heart

You’ve got to have heart. Otherwise, even the most inviting stores can become unwelcoming places for your customer
Mustn’t Sit Around And Mope

From where I sat, the distance between head-office and shop floor was a gulf, as wide as it was deep, and apparently impossible to cross. I had stopped by a friend’s house as his three children were returning from their shop-assistant jobs, two part-time and one full-time, in three different brand-name outlets, and listened to them swap stories of their working day.

I had known these young adults since they were children, and had enjoyed their company many times over the years. I had seen as they grew to teenage without withdrawing to the sullen, suspicious watchfulness that marks out so many at that age. Even when it came to their exams and the trials of broken romances, they had remained largely cheerful, always pleased to see me and ready to share news of their lives and plans.

Now, they sat around the dinner table, first frustrated and dispirited, then angry and critical, as they compared notes on the managers and customers who had conspired to make their day a miserable one.

Even as I sympathised with them, I found myself surprised by their version of events. The three outlets where they worked were hardly sweatshops; each stood proudly on the main street, a byword for quality and a market-leader in its own right. Each in its own way was a poster-brand, admired for its witty and articulate communications. Yet to listen to my friend’s children talk, these were deeply unpleasant places to work, visited by customers who seemed hell-bent on making things difficult, a far cry from the bright and attractive pictures painted in the advertisements.

Get Your Chin Up Off The Floor

As I listened, I found myself torn. Torn between sympathy for my young friends and their obvious anger and frustration, and a sneaking suspicion that those retailers weren’t quite so bad as they were being described. At the same time, the business-owner in me was privately appalled at the thought of the customer visiting these outlets and feeling like an unwelcome nuisance whilst being on the receiving end of such resentful and begrudging service.

As I looked around the table, I briefly admitted that I wouldn’t be inclined to employ any of the three if I ran a retail outlet but I kept this treacherous thought to myself. I did find myself wondering aloud what had happened to the three good-natured people that I knew and how come they had been so unlucky as to end up in such unpleasant workplaces.

At first, they were unable to answer this. I asked why they had taken up the job in the first place if it promised to be such an ordeal but they said they had been excited at the prospect of joining such apparently dynamic and successful businesses. Disenchantment had come later, when they stepped past the shop-front and started work behind the counter. As they described their experience, it became apparent that they saw little connection between the various tasks they did, whether sweeping the floor, taking orders or preparing food, and the shining promise that the store seemed to hold for them on that first day.

I asked about the training they received, and each of them described a cursory run-through of ‘what we do here and how we do it’. None of them had met the business-owner or even someone who played more than just a managerial role in the business. Crucially, none of them had heard the story of how the business had started and what it offered the customer over and above the obvious products and services. As far as each of them was concerned, this was just a place where they put in time in order to earn money, a place far removed from their lives beyond the shop-floor.

You Can Open Any Door

I recalled one of my own first part-time jobs, when I made sandwiches and soup at a coffee-shop in a local sports-centre, and served with a small team of students behind the makeshift counter in a converted storage area. Even the owners were part-time; he an accountant who made an appearance during his own lunch-hour or evenings, she a busy mother who put in shifts when the children were at school and kept us supplied with the loaves of bread and the other fresh ingredients. Whilst neither seemed an obvious entrepreneur, they both had a good understanding of what the customer wanted, and made sure that we knew enough to give it to them.

I remember the atmosphere around our temporary kitchen as cheerful, although there were times when you could hardly draw breath in the lunch-hour rush. Even at those busiest times, there was a great deal of banter fired back and forth across the trestle-table that was our counter, and we took our lead from the accountant and his wife who always seemed to have a remark for a customer, whether a throwaway comment about one of the games that had just finished on a nearby court or an opinion on a well-known player in one of the more high-profile sports.

Now I don’t want to create the impression that this was some sort of wonderland, made all the sweeter through the window of nostalgia, but it was certainly a world far removed from the unhappy places I heard being described by my three companions.

Miles And Miles And Miles Of Heart

I’ve already hinted at what I believe to be the crucial difference between my experience and theirs of what was essentially the same job. None of us was playing a part that might be described as glamorous or exciting in itself. Each of us was tasked with rudimentary chores, often with a great deal of mindless repetition involved. Some of those tasks were downright unpleasant (even as a homeowner, I still have a horror of emptying the bin and handling leftover food). But our experiences couldn’t have been more different.

So what made the difference? It seems to me that none of the three modern-day employers had succeeded in linking those menial tasks to the overall part that the business plays in the lives of its customers. The accountant and his wife had done just that. Whilst they might have seemed somewhat naïve and unsophisticated (they certainly didn’t believe that they had anything as fancy as a brand), they instinctively related the tasks of chopping and cutting food, buttering bread, mixing soup, refilling the milk-jug, clearing away the used tea-bags and, yes, even emptying the bins, to the provision of a tasty lunch and refreshment to our customers. It was clear to us that even in the makeshift business of a converted storeroom, there was a great scheme of things and we were a vital part of it.

Yet my employers had no grand vision for the business. I don’t recall a mission statement, laminated and displayed prominently for us to read before going about our business. There was no elaborate training course: one of my co-workers had quickly shown me how to make and refresh the tea in the battered tea-pots. Meanwhile, we took our lead from the customers when it came to making a good sandwich, although the accountant had made the job of measuring out ingredients a little easier by introducing a simple ‘french-stick cut in four: half and then half again’ rule of thumb. Even a relatively clueless twenty-year old can’t go too far wrong in stuffing a bread-roll with ham, cheese and coleslaw according to such a simple operating manual.

Meanwhile, the three high-profile brands had failed to translate the clever name, the fine graphics, the well-researched business plan, and all of the paraphernalia that goes with the territory in creating demand, excitement and recognition in the marketplace, into something that my three young friends could relate to.

You’ve Got To Have Heart

As I looked again around the dinner-table at the opportunity lost both for employer and employee, I was reminded how brands that simply build a shop-front will come a cropper sooner or later.

Whether the business is simple or sophisticated, the onus is on the brand-owner to paint the big picture and show everyone in the business how they are a vital part of it. As a customer, I easily buy into the offer that each of those three retailers makes to its market. What I struggle to buy into is the offer of sullen, begrudging service, where the customer is made to feel like a nuisance, suffered rather than celebrated.

By some coincidence, I bumped into an old friend from my college days shortly after my impromptu round table research and took the opportunity to check that my own memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. I asked how she remembered our unsophisticated offer in the sports-centre. She smiled as she recalled the fairly chaotic, but always lively and friendly set-up, and reminded me how she and her friends were often the last ones to leave, even when the tables and chairs had been put away and there was no obvious reason for them to stay.

Perhaps the reason wasn’t obvious then, but listening to my three young friends now, it seems obvious to me that it was about heart. You’ve got to have heart; otherwise, even the fanciest branded stores can seem like very empty places.