“Don’t cry over spilled groceries!”

UNREASONABLE HAPPINESS

One of my favorite Earth Fare stories involves (very peripherally) me (an Earth Fare cashier), sitting on the curb around the side of the building past the Green Sage restaurant – having my lunch. Two young Asian (best as I can tell) women come walking from the grocery store, across the parking lot, carrying one very full bag of groceries. (I never fill a bag that full – they would definitely have carried out two bags of groceries from me, unless they had demanded only one, in which case I would have given them my standard, only-partly-tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, “The Earth Fare company is no longer responsible for the safety of your groceries. If the bag breaks, it’s all on you. 

As these two girls are walking across the parking lot, their bag does actually break! It doesn’t just break – it positively explodes, and groceries go shooting in all directions! I’m a little holding my breath to see how these poor young women respond to such a setback.

And they laughed! They laughed hysterically! They laughed like this was one of the funniest things they had seen in their whole lives! Every time I tell this story – of their “unreasonable happiness” – I feel happy.guy with hand on face

About ten minutes ago, as I was taking my generic Zyrtec allergy medicine (I’m allergic to my dog), I – in my ill state – dropped by pill bottle and little white pills exploded everywhere. I looked down – at these little white pills all around and on top of my stockinged feet – and I started to laugh! The whole scene looked really funny! I laughed until I snorted and made all kinds of random noises. I thought back to those two girls and felt proud to be in their lineage. This made me even happier.

Michael Singer’s definition of “enlightened” is “unreasonably happy” – happy that does not require any particular reason for being happy, happy that cannot be dented by spilled groceries or little white pills, or even sometimes bigger things than that. You may have pain or sadness or all kinds of human reactions – but then you eventually do (and always knew that you would) return to your baseline of happiness.

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.”

Validation – the Ultimate Art

We are on this planet for healing.  The great meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We have come here to overcome the illusion of our separation.”

220px-Thich_Nhat_Hanh_12_Paris 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

When people ask me what is my spirituality or what God means to me, I typically say some version of:

“I don’t know much about all this, but I do have two experiences that feel true, even though I don’t know how or why.

  1. “All is one.  Everything is connected.  Whereas our limited rational mind – our ego – perceives chaos and separation, underneath that the truth is connection.  When my son was young, when something very synchronistic happened – like that just couldn’t be a coincidence that those things came together like that – I often would say “That was God winking at us.”  At those moments, my son – who often thought I was stupid, would think that was one of the stupidest things I had ever said.  Recently, when he was 40, he said, “Dad, remember when you used to say that a coincidence was really God winking at us?  I see it happening all the time now.”
  2. “Life is benevolent – it is constantly looking out for our good.  It keeps sending us those experiences we most need for our healing and growth.  If we don’t get the message, Life finds another way to send us the same message.  It’s a lot like the movie Groundhog Day: it’s a new day and life is going to give us a chance to try again, to see if we can learn what we failed to learn the day before.

We are here for healing – to remember who we really are.  We have mostly all had lots of experiences that did not reflect who we really are: our parents maybe had a very limited vision of our inherent greatness.  Only an exceptional parent really knows that we are a divine being and consistently reflects that to us.  Our schools mostly don’t support our uniqueness, our individuality, our spiritual beauty.  Nor our churches.  And on and on.

One of the most powerful experiences any of us can have to help us to wake up – to remember our wonderfulness – is validation, someone accurately reflecting us…pointing us to our beauty and strength and goodness.  We all have the power to offer this kind of healing to the people around us – and we can grow this gift of validation, our skill at reflecting the other person, constantly over time.  And as cashiers, we have the chance to practice it with customer after customer, every shift we work.

I have been very influenced by a video called Validation – the Parking Attendant.  I saw it in a creative writing class a few years ago and it has never let me go.  When I developed and taught a customer service class for cashiers here at Earth Fare a couple of years ago, it was a central part of that class – a part that our store manager Brandon still remembers vividly, two years later.  The premise is that the parking lot attendant, as he is validating your parking ticket, also validates you.  It’s a little fable that does show the power of saying true, positive things to people.  The concept is fully covered in the first seven minutes of the video, but the remaining nine minutes are also very sweet and worth watching.  It could affect the way you think of cashiering.

My stretch goal for myself is to offer a fresh, meaningful, true validation to every customer who comes through my line.  I never achieve that – if I hit something like 80% (I never actually keep track) it is a good day.  If they have just a couple of items to buy and you get no chance to really get to know them, it’s harder.  Or if there is a line and you have to focus a lot of your energies making the transactions happen – but fortunately swiping groceries is mostly genuinely mindless work, and you really can do this at the same time.

Some of my validations are not too creative: their hair, smile, blouse, food choice, eyeglasses.  But I have a deal with myself that the validation needs to be accurate and that I genuinely do appreciate the element I am pointing to.  You would be surprised how many people, if you genuinely admire their eyeglasses, will have a story about them – and often one they are proud of.  As a man, complimenting another man’s hair or beard can be slightly tricky – but if I don’t make really deep eye contact, they will probably be reassured that I’m not hitting them.  And if they know I’m not hitting on them, but still think I’m gay, well that’s not such a horrible thing.

I  have appreciated:

  • “your perfect nose” (she still remembers that one and laughs about it – “You just don’t forget stuff like that”)
  • “Your intelligence” – sometimes that’s obvious
  • “Your sense of humor”
  • ‘Your fast, improv-style sense of humor.  When I fed you a funny or BS line, you just ran with it.”
  • I love to appreciate couples: things like “You’re so comfortable with each other” or “You’re funny together.” couples
  • Or families (especially extended family) or parents and children.  I had a mother and six-year old daughter wake me up and learn a new format for affirming little girls.  I still use it with them.  I’ll say, “Honey, a ways back, a little girl came through who was about as old as you and about as pretty as you.  I told her how pretty she was.  Her mom said, “You know what we say to people who tell you how pretty you are.”  And, in unison, they said, “I’m pretty and strong and I’m smart – huh!” families

I have taught a course on this topic and am writing a blog called Healing Validations.  This blog is a little short yet, but already has some useful and even inspiring posts.

My mother was good at this. In my son’s last visit with her, at age 25 – just a few days before she died – she asked him what he was up to.  He attempted to describe to her his current fascination with making music on an Emu – a synthesizer.  She obviously had no idea what he was talking about, but thought for a moment and then said – very confidently – “I know you can do it.”  These were almost the last words he ever heard from his grandmother.

“To think something positive about someone and not to tell them is one of the biggest wastes there is.” (Majo)

 

“Pretty little girl”

These days, when – at the cash register – I tell a little girl that she’s pretty, I always follow that by saying this:
pretty girl with hair
“One day here, when i told a little girl she was pretty, her mama said, ‘You know what we say, honey, when some nice person says you are pretty.’  And then in unison, very powerfully, they said ‘I’m pretty, I’m smart, and I’m strong – huh!'”

The little girl I am speaking to at this point will almost always say, “I’m smart!” or “I’m strong.”  And I will say something like, “Boy, you really are, aren’t you!”  And the mother (or father) will usually beam with delight at their daughter.

Confessions of a lousy cashier

After seven years of cashiering at two different grocery stores (Greenlife/Whole Foods and now Earth Fare), I really do believe that – at my best – I am a very good, sometimes inspired, cashier.  Mr SquishyBut I’m sure not always at my best.  At my worst, I suck.

I am learning again and again that it really doesn’t support me to show up for work tired or depressed – or, like today, tired and depressed.   Tired I have some control over: it usually really is possible to get to bed at a reasonable hour the night before I work.  Depressed I have less control over – especially as someone with bipolar disorder whose bipolar process is currently pretty out-of-control.

Cashiering in a grocery store (and probably other kinds of stores, but this is the kind of store I know best) is very demanding work.  My buddy Tom Kilby in the Grocery Department – who has been working in grocery stores for a lot longer than I – believes it is the hardest job in the store.

Tom Kilby

Tom Kilby and unnamed cat he was visiting. 

You do very repetitive work, which does not necessarily support your creative energies – but you need to be creative anyway.  To do it really well, you need to be “on” – you need to fully show up, as much as this is possible, for one person after another, standing mostly in the same spot, for however many hours your shift lasts.  You need to not just be friendly, but if you want to provide a world-class experience for your customer, you need to be really interested in them.  To the extent that your line allows, you want them to feel really greeted, really welcome, really valued.

When I am tired or depressed, I just don’t feel like doing all that – and sometimes I just don’t.  But, ironically, what I keep finding is that this kind of connection with my customer is the most powerful antidote to exhaustion and maybe especially to depression.  If I reach down deep and pull up the energy to make really good contact with my customer, I feel better – sometimes, surprisingly, really good.

This actually should not be surprising.  We are social beings.  We crave contact with others of our species.  Emotional intelligenceReally connecting with our customers can be very satisfying.  We obviously can’t do it equally well with all of our customers – one after another after another.  Even when I am on a roll, I will observe myself maybe having great contact with one customer – then just kind of cruising with the next.  And sometimes the customer doesn’t want contact with us: they are preoccupied with something else or they have four more errands to run and they just want to get the hell out of here.

We also crave the experience of competence, of skill.  If we are aiming for really rich connection with customers, there is no limit to how much we can grow this skill.  I’m 73 years old, have 35 years of experience doing customer service in a professional setting and now 15 years in various  front-line customer service settings (Working Hard for the Money) – and it feels like only now am I really catching my stride and like there is no limit as to how much better I can get.

Cashiering can sometimes seem like a kind of menial job, but it really is nothing like that.  At it’s best – when we really throw ourselves into it – it is an art, a dance.  Otherwise we’re just swiping groceries, for relatively low pay.  That is just not a good deal.

Cashiering is manic work

Cashiering – especially good cashiering – is manic work.

Some times behind the register are slow, but most are not.  You need to change your focus immediately from one customer to the next.  You are wheeling and dealing.  If you value engagement with the customer – which is the factor that really makes cashiering shine – you need to really focus intently on the customer in front of you, listen well, pay attention to them, make them feel valued, have fun with them, while always paying attention the whole line.  Sometimes I will say to a new customer something like, “I know you have been waiting a long time.  I’m sorry for that.  With your permission, while you are here, I’m just going to put my head down and swipe groceries, so we can get you out of here.”

I’m more attuned to the manic quality of good cashiering because I have bipolar disorder.  In my first four years with our store, depression would sometimes infect my work with customers.  I would be sad – and not as responsive as some of my regular customers expect.  Occasionally a customer would say something to me like “Are you OK?…I don’t know – you’re just not your usual self.”

In the last five weeks, since I have been so happy to return to my job after a year away, cashiering pretty consistently makes me happy.  I am fun, playful, funny – and fast.  People leave my line happy, happy with our store – looking forward to coming back.  I consistently take register #5, the busiest register because it is right in the customer’s line of sight as they approach checkout.  I used to avoid this register, but now I like it because it keeps me busy.  Even in my currently happy state, I can quickly drop into depression if I am not busy, engaged.
Mr Squishy
I thrive on connection with the customer.  I love to make them smile, to make them laugh.  I strive to find just the right validation to make them feel good about themselves.  I compliment their shirt, their hair, their glasses, their choice of foods, their children.  I play with them.  When an obviously fun family recently asked me the origin of my Majo name (many people do), I said, “Would you like the real story or one of my many bullshit stories?”  They, enthusiastically and in unison, said “Bullshit!  Bullshit!”  And, because there was no one in line behind them, I gave them my bullshit story about being “born in Hungary, to gypsies.”  Because we had time, I said, “This is going farther into this story than I have ever gone – this is going to be interesting.”  They left really happy – with a grocery store story that they would remember.

Connecting with the customer in front of you – and keeping the line moving – is part of art of cashiering.  It is necessary.  Mania helps.  But if you don’t have access to mania, you need to reach down deep and pull up all your energy.  It is the difference between joy in your work and just swiping groceries.

Front End Colleagues

I want to introduce – or reintroduce myself to you, my front end colleagues.

shirt sale

A great cashiering moment: I loved this customer’s shirt – and bought it from him for $10.

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, building frontthe 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 possibleMr Squishy

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.