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This Is Us

No matter the type of business, no matter how many employees there are, and regardless of how busy things may be, all employees need to know a basic fact—that is simply that we are all on the same team!


Ahhhhh. The Christmas shopping season is upon us! And for those who manage in retail, we know that means dealing with frenzied stores, frazzled customers, and fresh on the payroll employees. The vast majority of us who dare even enter a physical store in the month of December leave less than satisfied with our shopping experience, often muttering to ourselves or yelling to the loved ones lucky enough to be with us something like: "Damnit! I should have stayed at home and just ordered all this stuff from Amazon!" 

As much as the top management of stores look at the month or so (longer this year) from Black Friday to Christmas Eve as the chance to end the year with a bang in terms of both revenue and profits, most of the folks working at the front lines of retail, and even those behind the scenes in supporting roles and the management that makes it all somehow "work," are happy—really happy—when Christmas Day finally does arrive. That is because their days of dreading facing unhappy customers—often long lines of them—for extended store hours end when Santa Claus appears on Christmas morning. Then, their work lives can go back to "normal" for the next 10-11 months!

With that being said, though I am a management consultant and professor, I do not go out and play the "expert card" when I am out shopping. I will admit that I will pickup stories that I can make use of in discussing management concepts in the classroom and observe for situations that would make good "What would you do?" points of discussion for students. Indeed, retail is one of the best and most relatable areas possible for college students to talk about, as we all interact with it; and many students work, or have worked, retail themselves. And Christmas time certainly isn't when I ever normally think about playing that card, lest one would make a scene and both draw the angst of other shoppers and maybe end up on Santa's "naughty list!"

With all that being said, I did have an encounter this Christmas shopping season that brought out the "management guy" in me (it came on like The Hulk), and it is one that I think shows an important lesson for all managers, regardless of whether they are in retail or not. And so, let us proceed to "The Incident."

The story goes something like this. My wife and I made the serious mistake of making our last stop of a shopping day that had went on way too long to be what we assumed would be our easiest and shortest task of the day. Now, you know what happens when you "assume?" (Google it kids if the double-meaning isn't apparent!). 

Well, we had a return to make at a national chain that specializes in selling crafty things and home decor. Now, being a gentleman and a scholar, I will not call out the whole company for the actions of one of its employees at one of its hundreds of locations. However, the checkout "corral line" was a bit lengthy late that Saturday afternoon in early December, but we dutifully took our place in what has become yes, the most efficient, but slightly dehumanizing, way the retail consultants have figured out to process more transactions and decrease overall customer wait times—thanks to Queing Theory!

Queing Theory

And so we were anticipating a lengthy wait for what would be an easy transaction. We even thought that whoever the "lucky" one of the three clerks manning registers at that time would be relieved to see us for our simple transaction. This was because we were getting to listen in—with no choice but to not listen to them—on a group of customers who had approached their purchase with mathematical precision in pursuit of minimizing their total outlay for "stuff" to turn their abode into a Christmas wonderland through "extreme couponing!" We had charged our purchase, and we had our store receipt.What could go wrong?

I must admit that I was being "that husband" at the time it was my wife's turn at the register. After all, that weekend's "game of the century" between Alabama and Georgia was underway, and I was taking the opportunity to check my phone like a "real man" in SEC country for a score update from the 2018 SEC Championship Game (which, by the way, turned-out to be an epic game).

That's when things took an unexpected turn. While what transpired did not prove to change the course of that day or, as my wife pointed-out in the after-action review in the car moments after this took place, make any real impact on the young assistant manager, it does make for a "teachable moment" beyond that particular situation, that particular day, that particular store, and even that particular retail setting.

Now to his credit, the assistant manager could see—from his stance safely behind the registers—that my wife was having a discussion with his clerk and he did approach them to help resolve whatever the problem might be. At this point, my attention had already turned from the ESPN app on my iPhone to what was taking place right in front of me. The clerk's "Uh, oh!" led to him telling my wife that he would have to issue her a gift card instead of issuing a credit since we were indeed over the 30 day limit, and he did a good job of explaining that the policy was indeed printed on the back of her store receipt—in very fine print, of course. Now my wife did not get upset, raise her voice, or doing anything to draw the attention of the assistant manager. So, he seemed to be simply intervening to try to see how he could resolve the situation that was, in a practical sense, holding up the line in a busy store during the Christmas season.

And so I was only half paying attention as my wife handled the transaction with the clerk. That was until I heard something that definitely perked my ears up, and I suddenly knew that we had a "situation." It seems that we had made our purchase on October 22nd, and the day that we were there to make our return happened to be Saturday, December 1, 2018. The clerk said, "Uh, oh!" when he went to enter the credit—the first clue that something was amiss. He explained to my wife that the company had a policy that after thirty days, they were required to give the customer gift card in the amount of their purchase, rather than a credit on their credit card.

Now all this means that we weren't really losing any money! The only difference was whether we would be receiving the credit, which we expected to be routinely issued, or a gift card for that amount to a store that wasn't exactly a regular stop for us. So, to us, the expected credit to our American Express account had much higher utility than a store credit. So, it was a small matter, that was until the twenty-something man whose name tag identified him as the assistant manager walked over to "help." I heard him use a phrase with my wife 2, 3, 4 times in their discussion of the matter that provoked my "inner management guru" to come out and try and intervene in the situation.

The word for the day: "Them"

What he said several times were variations on the following themes:
  • "They have a policy about making returns after 30 days."
  • "They won't permit us to issue a credit if its longer than a month out."
  • "They don't allow us to make any exceptions."

Yes, the word of the day seemed to be "they!" And that proved to be a trigger for me to intervene in the transaction that wasn't going anywhere to make a point. I was bothered by the use of that particular pronoun, and I indeed tired, and failed, to make the point to the young assistant manager for this retail chain that "there is no 'they' here, as when you are talking about your company, you should be saying 'we' or 'us.'" Even if you are referring to the corporate office, they are part of your company. To make matters worse, he was going to call over his store manager, but after waiting another five minutes after he disappeared to make contact with her, he simply told us that she agreed with him that nothing could be done to help us beyond issuing us a gift card because "they wouldn't allow it." 

Obviously, my "they vs. us" discussion had not went anywhere with him as the line of Christmas shoppers unfortunately mounted behind us. And yes, there were a few who did not have the friendliest of expressions on their faces as they watched our discussion unfold. However, the lady in line closest to us who had easy earshot of our whole discussion with the assistant manager at the (rather) calm decibel level it was carried out in over those few minutes had the most profound observation that she shared with me in that moment. She grabbed my arm as we were leaving and whispered to me as we walked away—yes, with our store gift card in the whopping amount of $27.89 in my wife's hands! In that moment, she asked me quite simply, "When will employees ever understand that they represent their entire company!"

And so that was my point that day, and it is the same one that I want to make for all here to read and to share. No, the purpose of this article is not to indict the entire retail industry, this particular chain, this particular store, or this particular assistant manager. Instead, I look upon that gift card that is on our desk now at home as a "teachable moment"—and one that is worth far more than the $27.89 that we may eventually spend on candles, potpourri, and/or kitchen gadgets for our home that we really don't need.

Precisely because the young man's name tag did have the word "manager" in his title, anyone can rightly assume that he was not hired yesterday. And hopefully, since he was identified as an assistant manager, he has hopefully—one can only assume—been through some—some—degree of training. And it does not have to be the quality of training and indoctrination that "excellent" service-based companies—such as Disney, Southwest Airlines, UPS, and a whole host of others make each and every employee go through—not just those that happen to be important enough to have a "managerial" title. He might likely have even taken some courses in college, or at least training within the organization, that included the key words "manage," "managing" and/or "management" in their titles. 

Fundamental to any management course, any management training, indeed any management advice, would be a simple fact. Stated quite bluntly, this is quite simple: "You need to make certain—damn certain—that all of your employees feel like they are part of the same team!" There is no more fundamental task in any organization than this! Without this, no real progress can be made on anything! You cannot improve anything, change anything, or really make anything happen if you do not make employees truly—truly—feel that everyone in the company or organization is acting to make certain that all employees feel a part of the whole. 

We may throw out phrases like "working as one" or "making sure everyone is on the same page" quite easily in conversations in organizations. However, as this case so clearly and profoundly illustrates, there cannot be any "they" within the organization, let alone referencing "they" when talking about the company with customers. If there is a cardinal sin in management, this would be it. You have to make certain—damn certain—that all who work for the ABC company or the XYZ corporation know, in their hearts and in their minds, and demonstrate through their actions, that the company is a "we" or "us" proposition, and no part of the whole, whether it be IT, HR, the corporate office, or any other part of the organization should ever, ever, ever, ever be referred to as "they." This is management. This is us. This is the way things have to be for companies and organizations to succeed today.

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