gaspump

Recently my father-in-law (let’s call him “Pop,” as my daughters do) was performing one of life’s most mundane tasks: fueling up his car with gasoline. He was at one of the ubiquitous convenience-store chains here in our neck of the woods, well known and which shall remain nameless here. Because of his job, he needed a receipt for his transaction. The printer at the pump was broken (again), so he had to go into the store for the receipt. Ugh.

Upon entering the store he found himself at the end of a long line of people at the register. Double ugh. To our story’s intrepid hero, it seemed that each person ahead of him in line had irregular, unique, and increasingly time-consuming business to transact with the clerk at the register. Triple ugh.

Frustrated and with some time to kill, Pop turned to his smartphone to check his email. Oh, looky here, a rewards club email from guess who, this place. So he crafted a brief and ever-so-slightly snarky response to suggest that fixing the chronically inoperable printers at the gas pumps might be a good, customer-centric thing to do. A harmless way to let off a little steam by sending it to an email address in the Interwebs that certainly no one is monitoring anyway.

An unexpected voice

Pop loves people, and he’s friendly with the folks at every gas station he visits. On a previous visit to this gas station, the store manager had returned Pop’s driver’s license when it had fallen out of his wallet. And more often than not, when the line at the register is long, the manager recognizes Pop in line and routinely opens up a second register, just for him, so that he can bypass the line to buy his morning Diet Coke. So Pop is loyal to this gas station.

On this day, when it was finally Pop’s turn at register, he asked the store manager about the chronic printer problem. The manager shared his frustration with not being able to get it fixed, despite many requests to the main office. Pop abhors all human (and animal) suffering, so he offered to “help” by contacting corporate about the problem himself – you know, as a paying customer. That oughta get their attention, he figured. The manager quickly and emphatically shook his head. “Please don’t do that!” Turns out that this would only attract unwanted negative attention from HQ, resulting in their displeasure with him and his store.

Pop got his receipt (and his Diet Coke fix) and went his merry way. Imagine his surprise when, exactly 43 minutes later, he received a reply to that ether-bound email he sent while waiting in line. The sender was a person whose last name was the same as the name of said C-store chain. It was a friendly one-sentence email, thanking Pop for his missive, and asking for the store number of the gas station he had visited, so that the sender (a company senior executive, as we later learned) could try to address the printer issue.

A case study in proactive customer service, modeled by corporate leadership, right? Yes… perhaps. Clearly this response, at this level, is exemplary, given the typical experiences many of us have in similar situations. I mean, we’re talking gas stations here. What’s more compelling, as Paul Harvey used to say, is “the rest of the story.”

The open door

Pop replied to the leader’s email, sharing the story about his wallet and his loyalty, and noting that he promised the store manager that he wouldn’t share the store number. He closed his response by acknowledging that this doesn’t help the leader to fix the problem, and posing a question that left the door wide open for further communication about the situation.

There was no further exchange with the company executive after that.

I find this a fascinating business case study, playing out against the backdrop of the everyday task of simply putting gas in the car. The needed corporate resources can’t be brought to bear on a small but customer-facing problem because the front-line supervisor fears that the attention will compromise his reputation, or worse yet, possibly result in some other reprisal. The issue here is not the broken printer. It’s the culture.

Sure, the senior leader demonstrated good customer service and problem-solving skills. What’s missing, however, is curiosity and willingness to engage more deeply with a customer who took the time to bring something else to light. A better choice would have been for the leader to recognize that this seemingly trivial matter about a printer is actually uncovering some organizational nuances that are worth exploring… and to be curious enough, and courageous enough, to have a different kind of conversation with a customer. I wonder how employee concerns are handled at this company.

Curiosity is a leadership virtue. It requires openness and, sometimes, humility. I know my loyalty would tick up a few points if my random email to a company about an issue resulted in a human reply from a senior executive. And my loyalty would absolutely skyrocket if that leader readily engaged with me in healthy idealogical debate and inquiry about the culture of the organization — the organization that also has his or her name on the lighted sign out front.

Where are your broken printers? What would happen in your organization if you were more curious about them?