Published on: December 8, 2009by Michael Sansolo
Professor Marianne Jennings of Arizona State, a terrific writer and speaker on business ethics, says there is an easy test for culture in a company. In short, it’s what people do when no one is around watching. If you doubt the power of what she says, think about how differently you drive when you see a police car in the mirror. For many employees, a manager on site is just the same. What’s more telling is what happens when no one is watching.
Last Friday MNB ran an interesting letter about the incredibly thoughtful response by a cashier in an Aldi store, who helped a mildly disabled customer with trouble paying. Incredibly, on the same day I was in another Aldi store, seeing something possibly more profound, which cost the company nothing and gave an interesting look into its culture.
But let’s start with some context here. In many ways, Aldi serves the most economically distressed shoppers in the market. The stores are simple; the merchandising sparse. It’s easy to expect that service would be the same. Yet, what I witnessed was a cashier going out of her way to compliment shoppers on their choices and greeting everyone with a warm and engaging voice. In short, she was going far beyond expectations and treating shoppers in a way some might rarely see anywhere in their lives.
It’s hard to know how Aldi is training for these moments, but clearly something is working. The message to treat customers with dignity and kindness is coming through.
Sadly, it’s also too easy to see the opposite in action. Again, let’s have some context. Last week I escorted a group of 11 Italian retailers on a tour of stores in New York and Chicago. Many stores rightly have reasons to withhold any great welcome to groups and given the time of year, most of the requests for meetings with managers were politely declined even though the group was welcomed to tour.
In most stores we visited - Target, ShopRite, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Walmart stand out - employees were both courteous and curious. Frequently they went out of their way to explain the rules of a visit and answer some quick questions.
Sadly, we saw the opposite reaction in a store I’ve heard many people (including Kevin Coupe) rave about. To avoid calling them out publicly, let’s just say it was an independent operator in northern New Jersey. Now this is a terrific operator with interesting merchandising, wonderful fresh products and a solid emphasis on pricing. But just as a kind cashier can elevate Aldi, a rude employee can do the opposite to a store as strong as this one.
As the Italians walked around the store many of them drifted to the sample stations. One employee (apparently a manager) was audibly annoyed, asking loudly if the group intended to buy anything. I had to point out that they were in fact purchasing food to eat ( a total of $130 to be exact) but that did little to change his mood. Once out of the store, the Italian retailers admitted they were stunned by the comments and questioned why any store employee would act that way.
Of course, some retailers will reason that being rude to a group of visitors is hardly going to impact business. After all, the visitors aren’t coming through again so what harm is there.
I’d argue: Plenty.
First off, in many of their other store visits the Italians found retailers eager to discuss products from Italy. Some wanted to discuss future business; others discussed trade possibilities. Nearly all asked for professional feedback.
But worst of all, think of the message that came through to other shoppers of the store who heard the rude comment. To untrained eyes and ears, what they might have determined was that the store puts out samples grudgingly, while watching if shoppers are actually buying that product. Just as anyone within earshot of the Aldi cashier would have given the store credit for caring and kind associates; in the New Jersey store the exact opposite message would have come through.
Culture, as Jennings says, is what happens when no one is watching. In truth, though, someone is always watching. And that’s why culture always matters.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com .
- KC's View:
- Michael is a kinder, gentler person than I. If I’d been writing this column, I would have called out the offending retailer. (Want a hint? See the MNB archives, and check out our edition from March 27, 2009. Apparently the enthusiasm of the opening days has turned into something less attractive in a matter of just eight months.)