Saturday, February 12, 2011

“The Inverted Pyramid”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
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"There is nothing more important to us than being a great place to work. When our people feel valued and cared about, they, in turn, make our customers feel the same.”

- Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman

A recent story about the New York supermarket chain Wegmans produced reflective thoughts for this writer. As a former retail manager in Geauga County, I felt moved by their tale of commercial excellence.

Based near Rochester, this food retailer was once again recognized as being a member of Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For.’ Incredibly. they have received the honor for fourteen consecutive years.

At number three on the list, Wegmans was the highest-ranked retailer in America. Noted in the story were company programs to promote employee health through good dietary habits. And, the availability of free medical screenings and flu vaccinations.

The closest Wegmans location to Geauga County is in Erie, Pennsylvania. I have occasionally visited the store when traveling east, in search of different surroundings. Every encounter with their style of business has produced positive emotions for myself.

Indeed, entering the Peach Street marketplace has always felt like traveling to foreign bazaar, filled with tasty goods of all sorts. A festive atmosphere makes their produce, bakery, deli, service meats, seafood, and café departments come alive with theatrical energy. Shoppers are immersed in sensory waves of music, aromatic delights, and colors.

After reading the Fortune report, I pondered a bygone business column from my own newspaper archives. This forgotten manuscript seemed to reflect a similar line of thinking to the philosophy being employed by Danny Wegman:


“Think for a moment – if we were in a meeting of company associates, and I asked, ‘Who is the most important person in this company, to our customers?’ What name would come to mind? Perhaps that of the CEO? Or maybe an Executive Vice President? In a local sense, your own Store Manager? Or (a) favorite department head? The reality here is that quite often, someone like a friendly cashier, clerk, or bagger may be in the position to decide whether a patron will choose our market, or a competitor’s store. On a salesfloor level, even the most humble among us is likely to hold real power in promoting retail success.”

My line of reasoning was that every team member provided a genuine ‘link’ between customers and the corporation. Therefore, I reckoned that the true importance of empowering our employees could not be overstated.

I used a past customer issue to demonstrate this truism:

“Incident #1234 – Customer was unhappy with the conduct of an employee. She was shopping with a small child and wanted to finish her visit quickly. She spoke to the manager on duty in regard to her displeasure. He didn’t seem to be paying attention. She wanted to pass along her comments to corporate supervision. Can we call her immediately?”

The memo depicted two breakdowns in communication. First, between the salesfloor associate and the customer. Second, between the manager and his patron. The result was that our shopper left without her situation being resolved. To nullify the damage, an operator at company headquarters suggested that a gift basket should be sent.

It was a proper reaction to the complaint, but not a real solution to what created the problem.

I observed that increased focus on the value of each associate as a representative of the business was vital. To represent this, I imagined an inverted pyramid. Our corporate resources were balanced on top. But serving as a narrow foundation was the store-level employee. Care would be required to maintain balance in this equation.

Additionally, I suggested that poor habits needed to be replaced with fresh, positive ideals. The ‘culture’ itself had to be changed:

“Learning is an everyday occurrence. Our people are being ‘trained’ while working. We need to take charge of this process with increased attention to the very core of our business – service to others. (We need) additional motivation and retraining that is targeted specifically at ‘empowering’ team members (with) increased value for the ‘identity’ of our company as a family.”

Pondering this lesson in retailing in a modern context, I arrived at three conclusions:

ONE – Problems should be addressed in ‘real time’ rather than ‘after the fact.’
TWO – Conflicts should be viewed as opportunities to shine through resolution.
THREE – Attention paid to customer needs is a guaranteed investment for the future.

Wegmans has become a benchmark retailer – philosophically opposite to the cold minimalism of Walmart. Their ideas are sound and useful. But new-age thinking is alive everywhere across the business spectrum.

Even here in Geauga County, USA.

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