Tom Kilby – hero of customer service.

(Tom, like most of us, has a certain amount of ego.  But – ego notwithstanding – he is one of the most genuinely humble people I know.  I considered running this piece by him – maybe having one or more in-depth discussions about it with him – before publishing it.  I know those discussions would have been very satisfying – and maybe we still will have them.  But, I feel pretty sure, it would have been a non-stop battle to get his permission to publish this thing.  So I’m just going to go ahead and publish it – and ask Tom for his forgiveness instead of permission.)

My real good buddy Tom Kilby, who has worked in the Grocery Department for at least seven years at Earth Fare and three years at Greenlife, likes to say that Cashier “is the hardest job in the store”.

Tom Kilby

I think of Tom as primarily a dog person – oh, how he loved his Madeleine.  But he apparently a cat person, too.

I protested: “But we are not responsible for the smooth functioning of several aisles of groceries, like you are.  We don’t have to anticipate the need for product and order just the right amounts of just the right thing – somehow sandwiching this totally different administrative function in between the continual onslaught of actually stocking groceries.  We don’t have to unload trucks and wrestle with huge cases of heavy frozen foods. which, yes, builds your muscles but constantly threatens your backs.  We don’t have to work by ourselves – with little contact with co-workers or customers – all day long.”

Tom – for someone who is really great at the essentially solo work of the Grocery Department – actually excels at customer service and kind of lives for it.  Although he is constantly under the gun to keep his three aisles under control – not only correctly stocked but “looking good” – something that management cares a lot about, and actually many customers, too, he is always extremely glad to set aside these time-sensitive duties to help a customer.  Seasoned customers know this and seek him out for all manner of help in the store – often ranging far from his three aisles.

kneeling

For Tom – and his dance parners Giovanna Allegretti Hopkins and Amanda Levesque – life is a dance.

When we both used to work at Greenlife/Whole Foods, he three times won the “Outstanding Customer Service Award” that was given three times a year to the employee who in that quarter most stood out for helping customers – an award that you pretty much expected to go to someone who had “customer service” more front-and-center in their job duties, like cashiers.  In, I think, the history of that store, Tom was the only employee to win that award three times.

When I was trying to be hired for my job at Earth Fare, it was to be expected that I would be interviewed by the Front End manager – the amazing Emmalee Butler, who I have missed a lot since she went to the corporate office for a job that better accommodated her life as the mother of a young child – and one of the assistant store managers.

It was, I think, less typical for a cashier applicant to also be interviewed by James Salducci – for 17 years the store manager at the Westgate Earth Fare store.  I’m a pretty good interviewee and the conversation had gone actually really well: early in the interview, I made sure to remind James that my candidacy was strongly supported by my friend and previous co-worker (three years together at the old Greenlife) Tom Kilby.  (I later realized just how truly unnecessary it was for me to make this point: Tom had actually taken more than one opportunity to talk me up with James.)

In the maybe-30-minute interview, James and I talked a lot about the nature of customer service – I think that was fun and satisfying for both of us.  He started to wrap up the interview by asking if I had any other questions.  Having taught interviewing skills back when I was a management consultant, I pulled out the tried-and-true response to this question – because it showcases you as someone who cares about the company’s success as much as your own: “What, to you and in this store, makes for an outstanding employee?”  James did not miss a beat. “Tom Kilby.”

I’ve never had an actual conversation with Tom about his philosophy of customer service, but – in the interest of the improvisation that Tom values maybe as much as any other quality in life – I’m going to go ahead and make up Tom’s three top principles of customer service.

  1. “It’s a performance – it’s showtime!”So much of Tom’s mundane solo work would not seem like a performance – but actually, for Tom, all aspects of his job can be infused by the passionate performer in him.  Tom doesn’t just hustle-hustle-hustle all day long – he creates joy for himself by doing this in style.

    He doesn’t just move fast all day, he doesn’t just walk fast: Tom is also a passionate improv dancer and he dances through those three aisles. His turns can be sharply executed or smooth and flowing.

    When he meets a fellow dancer (like me) in the aisles, he will sometimes dive into a 1-minute verbal-relational “power-pump”in which he exchanges more genuine interpersonal contact in one minute than most people can manage in ten minutes – and other times, especially if (like me) that fellow dancer is also experienced (even if, like me, they have never actually gotten very good) in “contact improv” (improvisational dancing that involves extensive physical contact with another dancer), he will exchange no words – but slink down the aisle shoulder-to-shoulder with them, give them a vigorous and almost violent chest-bump (Tom and I love to do this on the dance floor and often can’t resist it when we encounter each other in the cereal aisle), or (with more experienced contact improv dancers – unlike me – who he trusts not to get injured or to injure him) roll fluidly over their back.

    Amanda spirit

    Tom and his long-time dance partner, the indomitable Amanda Levesque

  2. “It’s all about love.”For Tom, you provide for your customer the kind of loving care that you long for when you yourself are a customer in a store – and which is more and more rare in these days when personnel are often barely trained at all and perhaps are constantly being asked to “do more with less” (like less person-hours to get the work of your department done).

    And, for Tom, love is not just at the heart of good customer service – it is the purpose of all life (maybe not just human life, but this conversation would veer into the mystical…a place where Tom will not hesitate to go).  “If you are not expressing and sharing love, then what are you doing with your precious eight hours – just stocking groceries?  I know that stocking groceries is necessary and even important – the store wouldn’t work well without that being done well.  But, excuse me, they are not paying me well enough to do only that.  If I’m not making great contact with people – if I’m not playing with people, dancing with people just as much as possible in my eight-hour shift – then I am just missing a precious opportunity to be fully alive.”

  3. All of this beautiful and sometimes-philosophical customer service essence having been imparted, Tom continually strives to rise to the occasion of – as much as possible – not taking any of it very seriously.  Mostly with his fellow workers – but also with customers who he has known for many years and who may actively seek him out every time they come in the store – Tom is all about play, teasing and general foolishness.  He cares less for “looking good” than I guess anybody else I know.  He is the trickster.  He plays the fool.  He pulls your chain.

    He once, when my self-described motivation for doing something sounded just a little bit manipulative to him – just a little too much self-oriented – he lightly said, “That sounds a little like our president.”  Now it has become code between us for him – if he gets even a hint of insincerity in something I say, his wry smile peeking out, to ask “Is that your Trump-self speaking?”

If you haven’t already gleaned this from this paean to Tom Kilby, I not only think he is a hero of customer service and a huge inspiration to me as I try to always take grocery store work to the next level – where it really becomes an art.  More than all that, I just plain love the man.  And I am in good company there.  When I mention his name to others – as I frequently do, because I am proud to be his close friend – I have never experienced somebody I mention to so consistently elicit the response, from a huge diversity of people:

“Tom Kilby?  What a great guy.”

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