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Customer service when hell freezes over

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in Leaders & Managers

During a lull between monster snowstorms on the East Coast in February, with snowplow operators already in their ninth shift of 12 hours on, 12 hours off, we witnessed a breathtaking performance of how not to lead.

It came during a delivery of snow shovels and ice melt to a neighborhood hardware store in Virginia. The store manager had morning customers reserve those items on a sign-up sheet. He said the truck would arrive by noon.

So far, so good.

By 1 p.m., the truck had arrived. About a dozen people lined up outside. Employees told customers to get in line regardless of whether they were on the sign-up sheet.

As employees unloaded the truck, boxes with shovel handles sticking out vanished inside, all the way to the back room, just as they would in a normal delivery. Hand trucks loaded with bags of ice melt rolled inside. The goods were indoors; the customers waited outdoors.

By 1:30, customers began wondering aloud why the boxes weren’t being inventoried immediately and sold on the street. Asked about this, store employees said they had to do what the boss told them.

The manager unloaded a box or two. He never made eye contact with customers.

Those who ventured to ask about the procedure for selling shovels and ice melt received varying answers and were told to rejoin the line.

By 2 p.m., the truck was fully unloaded and still not a shovel or bag was sold. The line stretched to the end of the block, with at least 50 people waiting in below-freezing temperatures.

The manager stopped to take a smoke break on the street corner.

By 2:15 p.m., random customers had shovels—but not those at the top of the list or at the head of the line. Employees had called a few people on the list, telling some to come forward and others to wait. By 2:30 p.m., irate customers had peeled off the line. As snow flew again around 5 p.m., customers still waited outside.

Implacable, the manager continued phoning people after 6 p.m., oblivious of how he might have handled things better. 

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