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Article for Week No 35.

Employee Empowerment and Customer Service
(The Cookie and the Orange)
by Peter Grazier
(Originally appeared in EI Network, July 1998)

One year ago I wrote an article called "Empowerment in a Cookie." I don’t like to repeat myself in these pages, but I can’t help revisiting this subject again in light of a recent experience.

The Cookie

In the spring of 1997 I visited a grocery store called Whole Foods Market in Devon, Pennsylvania. It’s about 30 minutes from my home, but I had heard that the company focused on healthy foods, and that interested me.

During my visit there, I sauntered by the bakery counter when my eyes were drawn toward the cookies. As a recovering cookie-holic, I really was not interested in buying any. However, as I yielded to temptation, I focused on the healthy ones—you know, the ones with fiber and such. So I asked if they had any crumbs or samples I could taste.

The young man serving me was kind and unusually patient as he mused over my obvious buy-don’t buy dilemma. Instead of crumbs, he simply gave me an oatmeal cookie to taste. He then suggested the luscious (and expensive) chocolate chip cookies beside them—he said they were really good. Proudly, I refused.

But somehow he seemed to notice a twinge of doubt in my refusal, so he asked again. Again, I refused. Do you know how much I wanted to try that chocolate chip cookie? I’ll bet you can guess. And so did he, because when I returned home and opened the package of oatmeal cookies I bought, I found two chocolate chip cookies that he had secretly slipped into the package! Today I am a regular shopper at Whole Foods Market. OK, not just because of this cookie incident, but it helped.

What I sensed immediately was that this company must foster a culture of empowerment that allowed this bakery employee (or team member as they are called at Fresh Fields) to make an independent decision to satisfy, no, delight this customer.

The Orange

Closer to my home is another very good grocery store where I shop when I don’t have time to visit Whole Foods Market. This store’s products are more traditional, but their service is generally good.

For the last few months, however, I have been having difficulty buying oranges. More times than not, when I get to the checkout counter, the price for oranges will be wrong—usually higher. Correcting this is inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing when there is a line of customers behind me.

I have mentioned this to the produce people, but the problem still exists. A couple of nights ago I confronted one of the produce people again about the pricing problem, and pointed out another obvious error. To their credit, they handled me well, and worked with me to correct the problem. It finally took a manager to make a phone call and straighten out the pricing.

While the manager was phoning the other store, I talked with the young man in produce. He said that these juice oranges weren’t selling because the price was just too high (because of the pricing error). I asked him if he could change it and he said no. He also knew that they would be throwing out the oranges soon if they didn’t sell. His frustration in not being able to correct such an obvious problem in his own department was evident.

The Lesson

I tell these two contrasting stories because they relate directly to customer satisfaction and profitability as a function of employee empowerment. Two good grocery chains with two very different approaches to management.

At Whole Foods Market, every employee is aware of his or her impact on profit and is empowered to take independent action to maximize it.

The decision to give two expensive cookies to a customer is not an insignificant decision. It is a business decision that may influence the relationship between a store and its customer.

Unfortunately, it is a decision that most employees in traditionally managed organizations have no authority to make.

My hope is that these two examples will clearly show how customers and profits can be won or lost when employees are enabled to take ownership of day-to-day problems. Once again, it just makes sense.

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Week 31

Week 32

Week 33

Week 34