Empty Shelves

I walked into the mailbox store last week to pick up my mail. The counter inside the door, usually filled with business cards and flyers from the mailbox holders and the local merchants was empty. Naked. Unadorned.

It struck me immediately as strange and left me feeling sad, disconnected, and odd. For so long those who frequent this place had their little spot here to do a little free advertising, to be part of a community and to get a little extra exposure. (Or if you are not too emotional about it- another place to leave a business card.)

Those who share the same address have at least one thing in common. Place.

Some of us have more than that in common. I’ve actually met some very good friends here. 17 years I’ve been walking in this door.

That day something really felt strange.

“Hey! What happened to all of our business cards?” I asked.

“Gone” came the answer from the young man  (another new one.)

“Did the owner come and take them away?”

“Nope. And you are not the only one who noticed. I’ve been hearing about it all morning. I didn’t make the decision – corporate did and there’s nothing I can do about it.”


An interesting conversation ensued – about customers, community and expectations.


It had been a friendly little corner that spoke to the variety of small businesses (yes, customers) who most likely form the bulk of that store’s copy and shipping business.  Most people probably didn’t get a lot of leads from the friendly shelf, but some certainly got a few new clients as a result of picking up a card on the way out. All the shopping center merchants all had cards there too. Like I said a friendly shelf.


I know. To some outsider the shelf probably looked “messy” or something so very un-corporate. Or maybe there is an obscure health hazard that occurs when business cards gather together too long on a shelf. Who knows?


The conversation I had with the store clerk was not dissimilar to one I’d had at the Vitamin store just two weeks ago. The people on the floor, who most often touched the customers had to explain that an “order” came down from on high that put them in a poor position with their customers.


In the case of the Vitamin store it was a “Policy” that stated vitamins could not be returned without a receipt. The people at the store level were responsible for enforcing that policy. That is, unless the customer got angry enough to call the corporate office and make a stink.


At that point the person in the store was to give the customer what they wanted – as long it was in the form of a store credit, even if the customer had already been told  “no”.


When I found myself in the middle of that conversation I asked, “And how does that make you feel?” and got an earful of words that spelled the same thing to me: “disengaged.” When an employee is made to look like an idiot because they don’t have a good explanation for the “policies” they are made to enforce, and they don’t have any power to use their own judgement about whether or not an exception can be made it makes them feel “stupid” (in the words of the store manager who shared them with me.)


As a customer of both stores it makes me unhappy to think that the people I rely on for help with office work and with advice on buying supplements are made to feel “less than” important when corporate makes a decision and does not take their customer-facing experience in to account.


I want to do business with people that feel smart, confident and empowered to work on my behalf. I like local businesses precisely because I want to develop relationships with people that I know will care.


If you work for “corporate” please be mindful of the wisdom and the info at the local level and please listen deeply to what the people who touch the customers daily have to say about your decisions.


Your brand depends on it.  Your “engagement” of customers and employees depend on it too.  One of the foundation principles of “Exquisite Customer Care?” is this.  “Everyone on your team is smart, talented and has something to contribute.”



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