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  • Writer's pictureHoward Hulin

"Just a moment, I need to finish up this text ..."

At a huge hardware store local to me, I walked up to a cash register, with no one in line, only to be not greeted by a young man on his cell phone. I stood there for over a minute while he finished up a text message. I just stood there shaking my head. Now maybe, just maybe he was consoling a friend who just lost his dog or telling his sweet old grandmother how much he loved and missed seeing her. In either case, I stood and waiting for him to finish.

How would that make you feel? Would you have interrupted him?

Right after I graduated from college, I got a short term job as a cashier at this same giant hardware chain as a cashier. It was in Long Beach and one of the first ones to be built here in California. There were no bar codes and no self service lines. All items in the store were listed on flip charts that were updated almost daily for the cashiers. For that matter, cell phone weren't around either.

During our training, it was expressed to us that every customer that came into the store and purchased something were the ones who were paying for our wages and they were to leave the store delighted with our customer service. Even customers who didn't buy were to be treated with the same level of customer service; and, made to feel like they mattered to assure they'd return another day.

I've always been a doer and enjoy my projects and this time needed to match a few hinges for the house. I went to my local "giant hardware store" and found the box where the hinges were supposed to be located. One after another, I pulled mixed hinges out of that box until I found one that matched what I needed. Knowing there could be more stock, I went looking for someone who could check for me. The gentleman I found said he wasn't "in" that department but after a bit of convincing, agreed to follow me back to the where the hinges were located. He looked up the item and said they should have 17 in stock.

On my hands and knees, one by one I continued pulling hinges out of not only the correct box but the others next to it. Since I had nowhere else to put them, I tossed the misplaced ones in my basket. The gentleman just watched, not once asking if he could help. Hinge after hinge. Clank after clank the hinges hit the inside of the cart. No one else was in the isle diverting his attention. He just stood their in his amusement and watched. After I emptied at least three full boxes, I asked the gentleman if he'd be so kind as to check stock at a nearby store. He found stock in Fullerton, Brea, and Pasadena.

"Ummm ... What about the other store in Irvine," I asked? "They have 8," he responded.

I guess it didn't occur to him to check stock at the store that was only a few miles away. Back in the day when I worked for this chain, we would have emptied every box for the customer looking for the 17 the system showed knowing that some customers are notorious for not putting things back where they belong. I thanked him for his "assistance" and headed for the check out line with a basket full of mismatched hinges and the one that I needed. Off to the other store I went.

How would you have reacted? Would you have been "delighted?"

Several days ago, I needed ceiling paint so I went to this store again. Different day hoping for different results ?? I found no one at the paint counter to assist me but did see two young men stocking items in the adjacent paint isle. I looked at them and they looked at me yet continued doing whatever they were doing. I waited and waited thinking they thought someone else was supposed to be helping me. After awhile, one of the young men stopped and came behind the paint counter. "Someone else should be here to help you but I guess I can do it," he said annoyingly. BINGO ... I was right. Not that I wanted to be but history does tend to repeat itself.

Was it me or was I basically told I was bothering his work and it wasn't his responsibility to help me? He had lots of paint on his apron so I knew he had mixed paint before. Had I not needed the paint, I probably would have said, "no thank you" and turned and went elsewhere. Back in the day, both workers would have immediately stopped and fought for who would have helped me. That is what we learned from our parents, our schooling, and at our places of employment.

Which of the Pillars above were not met?

Then there is Mike in the flooring department. Thoughtful, helpful, goes out of his way and as I have watched from afar, treats every customer as though they were the most important person in the store. Confusing, right? I appreciate the level of customer service Mike gave me when I enquired about a new granite countertop for our bathroom remodel. I witnessed the same level of customer service provided to others as well each time I went back. (Kinda spooky, heh?) Is it because he is wiser in his years? Grew up in a different era? Maybe his set of values is entirely different from those younger than him. Hard to say since the "hinge" gentleman could very well have been a Mike; but unfortunately had the "not my job" demeanor.

So why the vast differences in customer service skillset at the same store?

I believe they have training regarding customer service. I know they give badges for different achieved skill sets. From their stock price, I could have retired by now had I invested in them long ago. But again, am I just seeing things though tainted lenses? Maybe all of my years in Quality and Customer Excellence has placed my expectation bar too high for this generation to reach? Maybe the store can't find additional people like Mike to add to the team. I know from experience there are lots of other team members, just like Mike, in the store. I just can't seem to remember their names is all.

Next time you go to your local hardware store:

  • Observe how many team members pass you by without so much as a good morning.

  • Do they make eye contact?

  • Do they have their heads down looking at their phones.

  • Do you have to search for someone to help you?

  • How are their customer service skills?

  • How do they make you feel as a customer?

I'd like to hear about it.

In the continuing weeks, I'll be publishing my own experiences (and maybe yours) regarding customer service in hopes that establishments will get the word out that as customers, we still need to know we are important and that "Brick and Mortar" stores can survive.

Email me at

Until next time, use your voice! The moon is the moon and the sun is the sun. If anyone tries to tell you anything different, use your voice and speak up!

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