I want to introduce – or reintroduce myself to you, my front end colleagues.
I appreciate and admire all of you. We are doing very hard work. At it’s best, it’s heroic. If we are not really engaging our customers, then we are just swiping groceries – and we’re not getting paid enough for this to be a good deal. If we are not really in this for the money, then we ought to insist on doing really satisfying work. Tom Kilby, who has worked here in Grocery for a long time, swears that cashier is the hardest job in the store. I think that, at our best, we are creating at our store a community of staff and customers that enriches life for all of us.
I worked for 20 years as a Ph.D. clinical psychologist. Providing psychotherapy and personal growth workshops for people was very powerful customer service – and required me to continually improve at learning about and focusing on what would really help people.
Then I worked for 15 years as a Fortune 500 management consultant (organization development) focusing on teambuilding and participative management, management coaching, diversity, and other services. My clients – even during the four years that I was an internal consultant (like as an employee) at AT&T, my internal clients were paying a lot of money to the Human Resources Department for my services. I had to be exquisitely focused on customer service or not be invited back.
When I came to Asheville 15 years ago, “semi-retired” and trying to get a grip on the bipolar disorder that had wiped out my career, I knew that I did not want to (and could not afford the stress of) doing professional work. I needed to re-invent myself. My son’s advice – for my own mental health – was “move somewhere you have never lived before, where you know nobody, and do work you have never done before.”
I decided to become “the working class hero I was always meant to be.” I grew up from solidly blue collar roots and was part of the first generation in my family to go to college. When, right out of college, I got a Ph.D. and never after college did anything but white-collar work, it always felt a little strange and kind of like a betrayal of my heritage. I recommend my blog post “Working Hard for the Money” (https://rlcol.com/2019/08/19/working-hard-for-the-money/) as a tour through my 13 front-line customer service jobs in Asheville. Like the Donna Summer song, it takes a strong stand for the dignity and rights of people who do hard, under-appreciated work. I strive, in my work with front line customer service workers, to not just help them to work better, but to be treated better and be more appreciated.
I have done a lot of retail (cashiering at Green Life for three years before I came to our store), but have also worked in a call center as a telephone customer service rep., been a taxi and Mountain Mobility driver, and a restaurant server. I have also been a vendor out in front of the store and other locations, selling “on-demand” poetry: you tell me the topic you want a poem about (your mother, your future career, I specialized in dog poems). I have wanted to do more of that again, and if the store keeps cutting my hours I will have the free time and no economic choice.
I worked here as a cashier for four years before, a little over a year ago, I made a “deal with the devil”. In order to move into Battery Park Apartments, the old 13-story hotel out the north end of the Grove Arcade that is now subsidized senior apartments, I had to reduce my income – and the only way I could do that (I couldn’t let go of my monthly social security check) was to let go of my job here at the store. That was a very bad idea.
I had no idea the extent to which my work here – the structure to my days, my keeping busy, my sense of competence, but especially my relationships with staff and customers – kept me together. A year of not being here basically wrecked my mental health. I woke up one day and realized “I compromised my integrity by the choice to give up a job I love to move into an apartment building downtown (I hate apartment buildings and hate living downtown), mostly because so many of my loving friends say I have to do it. I’m going to go get my job back and find another place to live.” By the end of that day, I had my job back and had begun laying plans for a move.
Our store manager had been a participant in – and loved – the little 30-minute module on customer service I had developed for the store and delivered several times to groups ranging from one person to four. He reminisced about it as we walked back to his office for my job interview. He remembered that the key concept was “validation” – finding ways to affirm our customers – and the 7-minute video called “Validation -the Parking Attendant” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbk980jV7Ao), which I very highly recommend to anyone doing customer service.
When I told him I wanted my job back, he got all excited and said “When can you start?” No job applicant could ever ask for a better response. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I did want all the cards on the table. “I understand that the ‘items-per-minute” metric – how fast you swipe groceries – is being pushed by corporate, and I’m slow.” Brandon said “You’re Mr. Customer Service, that’s just what we need right now. We’ll work with you on your ipm’s.”
I have asked our store manager to bring back my little customer service course, but he said that with the way worker hours are being cut, there’s no way to be pulling people off the cash register. He wants me and some of our other more senior cashiers to be informal resources to newer cashiers around customer service issues.
These days, especially since coming back from my year away, it seems like my three major missions on the job are:
1) to play and have fun as much as possible
2) to help my customers play and have fun as much as possible – to feel like grocery shopping is fun and our store is a warm, alive, fun place to be. Another way to say that is that they would feel seen, acknowledged – valued as a person, not just a “customer”.
3) to, as much as possible, affirm every customer – to find a unique way to validate each one of them, even if it’s a little wacky or I may not even totally understand why I’m saying it. A woman at Jason’s Deli the other day gave me a big smile and said, “I remember you – you’re the cashier that told me I have a perfect nose. You just don’t forget stuff like that.”
I will be looking for ways to reach out to you all – to connect, to develop a relationship that can support me being helpful to you. (Brandon is trying to help me get my override codes back – that would help.) I hope and encourage that – from your end – you will be looking for opportunities to develop a relationship with me where I can support you in your work, especially around customer service.