Why Should They Care?

Things You Can Learn At A Discount Store

A while back, I found myself in need of a headset for my mobile phone and made the sojourn to the local branch of a national chain of discount stores. As I approached the electronics department of the store the young lady minding that department beat a hasty retreat. She didn’t know me and had no reason to believe this would be a difficult transaction. No, she simply didn’t want to put forth the effort required to assist me. No big deal, all I had to do was find the phone headsets.

After navigating the inscrutable layout of the electronics department I finally came upon my prize and, even though I have worked extensively with electronics, I must say that the choices were hardly straightforward. Most of the headsets were geared towards people that wanted to listen to “music” and were designed to have the bass response of a cathedral packaged into a tiny earpiece. Eventually I found something that suited my needs and, to be honest, I probably was better off for having been unassisted in my selection. I’m relatively certain that my headset priorities would have been as inscrutable to the young lady working there as the layout of the department had been to me.

(For what it’s worth; the department was probably laid out as it was in an attempt to make certain that I was exposed to certain products while I was finding my way to the headsets. Supermarkets do the same thing and are designed to mold your shopping experience in such a way as to maximize the profit from each customer. A lot of research goes into store layouts and their effects on profit per square foot, but that’s another subject and for another day.)

Having made my selection I was mildly irritated that the electronics department employee was still in hiding. It would have been nice had I been able to complete my transaction without having to brave the checkout lines at the front of the store, but that was hardly a major problem. I wasn’t in that much of a hurry.

While I was waiting to check out I gave a moment’s thought to what had happened. Initially, I was irritated that this employee dodged her responsibility and concluded that she was yet another example of apathetic youth. Then it struck me that she really didn’t have much reason to care. Think about it; she was almost certainly a part-time employee, poorly paid and with virtually no prospects for advancement within the company. She probably was 5-10 years out of high school and likely still living with her mother; fat chance that anyone could live independently on the pay from that job. Her appearance belied a lack of self esteem, but what reason would she have had for self esteem? Her job was thankless, her high-school education nearly worthless and her prospects were not good. Even if she was a college graduate there’s no guaranty that she will ever find fulfilling employment and have benefits, etc.

Frankly, compared to what today’s youth experience, my generation had it made; and I came of age just in time for the recession of 1974-75, when jobs were scarce. As irritating as the behavior of this employee had been, I had to pity her. Odds are strong that she will face an uphill battle and may never become financially independent in today’s economic/business climate.

It’s A Moral Issue

While I would be the first to agree that many of yesterday’s business leaders were anything but virtuous, I think that many of them understood, at the very least, that they had to make it possible for their employees to make a living and that their business had to serve the customer in order to prosper.

Henry Ford, hardly a flawless man, believed that he was providing transportation for the masses, affordable tractors for farmers and famously offered his workers a $5 per day wage, which was about double the prevailing market. (Unfortunately, he also used his “Social Department” to micro-manage the live of his employees and one could only receive the $5 per day wage if they were wiling to live by Henry’s rules in their personal lives.) Nonetheless, a Ford consumer or Ford employee could expect at least some level of consideration from Henry & Co.

These days, most companies have one real goal, the maximize return to the stockholders. Long-term goals, true social merit, compensating employees in such a manner as to allow them to support themselves; none of these things are likely to interest an executive that is trying to make sure that the stockholders are happy when the next earnings report is published. Henry Ford fired his accountants at one point and still built a massive company that made him the richest man on earth at the time. Such a thing would be unthinkable in our day.

Sometimes It Goes Even Further

Watching “The Smartest Guys In The Room” on DVD, I was reminded of how badly things can go. If I’m understanding hat DVD correctly, Enron used something called “mark to market” accounting, which listed the future projected earnings for an asset as soon as it was acquired. Now, with the exception of tracking the modest balance of my bank account, I have no financial or accounting experience, but it strikes me that as soon as mark to market accounting was used, the financials of the company had to be inflated one way or another or the whole thing would look very bad in the next report.

Ethics is not likely to stand up well in such a situation and the collapse of Enron revealed that the company was much more image than substance. While employees were prevented from selling the stock that made up their retirement accounts the executives dumped their personal holdings. Consumers in California had exorbitant utility bills and suffered untold effects from outages that could have been prevented while the top brass thought only of their own fortunes. In this case, the line between ethics and inhumanity came into play.  The human cost of this disgrace simply cannot be measured, but I’d be surprised if there were not deaths caused by those outages.

When In Doubt, Don’t

These words are attributed to Benjamin Franklin and, while he was not a flawless man, he did have a way of expressing wisdom that is hard to beat. Sometimes we all have to decide what to do in a situation and the right thing is seldom the easiest option. Doing the right thing may mean accepting a loss and accepting blame even when we are not at fault. In some situations there is no easy answer, but if we can rise above the matter we stand a much better chance of a positive outcome.

Businesses that stand behind their products and truly support their customers may not be popular with investors looking for a quick buck, but an entire generation of such businesses once thrived. J. C. Penney operated on the golden rule and grew rapidly by endeavoring to take the high road when it came to customer service. They weren’t perfect, but in its heyday, one would not have been likely to see an employee fleeing their department rather than serve a customer at Penney’s. Sears was somewhat similar, with a customer satisfaction guaranty that won the hearts of many consumers. It used to be that buying virtually anything at Sears was a safe choice, and if you were disappointed they would cheerfully refund your money if there was any reason whatsoever to justify a refund and they would usually do so without any justification if you pressed the matter.

Many of yesterday’s giants are teetering on the brink of collapse. It’s not entirely the fault of the businesses either, consumer dishonesty has made such policies unworkable these days. But it still comes down to ethics; on both sides of the counter. Businesses that mistreat employees are not going to be able to offer good customer service and customers that abuse the business with which they trade can hardly expect the exemplary customer service of past generations.

The quote Joni Mitchell: “don’t it always seem as though, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

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