One of the first songs I heard my grandfather sing was the fable of John Henry.
It was a bittersweet song from a poem that told the story of a steel-driving man who won a contest pitted against the new fangled steam-powered drill and then died from the stress of the match.
John Henry’s job was driving a spike into rock to create a hole large enough for dynamite to be placed in order to create the Big Bend tunnel for the C&O railroad in West Virginia around 1870.
My grandfather spent much of his life looking at the back end of a mule since farming during his era was largely done by hand. For him, the hero in the song loudly proved that man could always defeat machine. As a child, I recall feeling ambivalent about how any victory could be called as such if it resulted in a dead competitor.
When I think about John Henry I am reminded of an incident at a large, well-known home improvement retailer. I went to purchase a single small copper fitting for a faucet extension. A very nice man helped me find the bin for ¾” fittings; there was only one loose unpackaged fitting left in the bottom of the bin. Somehow inventory had not been replenished.
The front of the bin had it priced at $1.99. I took it to the checkout counter and was told, “I’ll need an item number. Where is the package it came it?” I explained it was the only one left and was loose in the bin with a price of $1.99. Again, she refused to proceed without an item number.
She called back to the plumbing department and the man who waited on me came to her register and informed her the price was $1.99 and that it was a single loose item without a package. Again she stonewalled, heatedly sending him back for the item number from the front of the bin. He was gone a while. “Just charge me $5,” I suggested. “I am in a big hurry and we are holding up this line of customers.” Then, the steam-driven drill slammed into rock-hard reality.
“The cash register will not let me ring up this copper fitting without an item number.”
We live in a time flush with high efficiency, cost control, and lean operations. Not only has waste and expense been wrung out of most systems, too often so has the heart and soul of the people serving people. We seem to be getting longer on high tech; shorter on high touch. The clerk was not the culprit in this “man versus machine” rematch.
Bar coded packaging today drives inventory control, P&L calculations, and all manner of financial management processes. Maximizing the clerk’s productivity meant keeping her focused on the rules of the registry more than on the concerns of the customer.
Were this a small local hardware store, I might have gotten, “I’ll check you out now and put the item number in later.” But, this was big business where an all-powerful cash register completely blocked this clerk’s ingenuity, empathy, and empowerment. So, who ultimately wins this contest? There is a direct competitor just a few miles away! But, let’s go deeper into the real misfortune behind this incident.
The “cash register as champ” communicates to the clerk that it is far more important than she is. Coupled with her being within firing range of angry customers, she is easily beaten down by a scenario over which she has zero control. When I asked her whether this stalled situation made sense to her, she briskly replied, “Absolutely none whatsoever.” Her answer told me she had little regard for the system she guided; her tone told me she had little regard for my continued patronage. But, there is more.
When the sales person with whom I dealt told her the price and she demanded he get the item number off the bin, her tenor sounded like an angry mother sternly chastising a naughty child. Her colleague could have easily concluded she did not believe him. When he was gone so long, retaliation raced through my mind. And, when he finally brought her the item number, there were no pleasantries exchanged. He did not smile; she did not say “thanks.” Machine: 1; Morale: 0.
Now, for the final act in this tragedy. The entire scene was played out in front of an audience of several waiting customers. Some backed out of line to choose another rather than wait for the item number to satiate the cash register and release the two of us from its unyielding grip. I later wondered why I did not just leave. But, I sensed there were lessons to be learned from this $1.99 fiasco.
What is smart about customer service driven by the inviolable nature of the cash register? And the cash register is just a metaphor for any system, process, and procedure that inappropriately stops the execution of enterprise. This was not a legal, safety, or health stoppage of commerce. Granted, profit making is vital for survival. But, as Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once remarked, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he (or she) can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his (or her) money somewhere else.”
The clerk might have been charged with the crime of a bad attitude. But, I suspect behind her tough exterior was a personality charming enough to fool a recruiter. She might have missed customer service training. But, knowing to focus on the person giving you the money which funds your salary is not a concept only learned in training.
No. The culprit was the myopic view of leadership driven by a “make the numbers” through operational excellence not customer intimacy. The irony was their technological prowess failed to keep the copper fitting bin flush with inventory. And, the human in command of taking care of the customer was jailed by a system that quarantined a solution that favored the customer.
In the end leadership failed to give this front-line ambassador the trust, respect, and capacity to ensure that when there was ever a John Henry-like contest, a healthy “John Henry” would always win…right along with the customer.