Hire Heart

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If it didn’t really happen to me, I’d have thought it was a skit in a training video about what not to do.

I was at Fairway market on 125th Street in NYC, perusing the itty bitty supplement section. Clearly looking for something I wasn’t finding. The employee manning the section saw me looking, not finding what I needed and chose not to help.

As I ambled closer, still searching, it became clear I wasn’t going to find what I wanted on my own. I knew, she knew it.

When I was five feet away, she pulled out her phone and made a call. “Oh, hi, just seeing what’s up. Yadda yadda yadda.” All personal. Nothing urgent.

I came up as close as I could without invading her personal space and smiled as I tried to catch her eye to let her know I was waiting to ask a question. She rambled on. Standing there, facing away.

Maybe if she spoke long enough, I’d go away. But I didn’t.

Finally, she hung up.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “I’m having trouble finding the rice protein, do you know where it’s located?”

“I have no idea,” she replied with a look of annoyance, then walked quickly away.

Really? Really?

Lesson for entrepreneurs…

There is likely no more important decision you’ll make than who you hire, the culture you create and how strongly people buy into that culture.

Zappos CEO Tony Hseih has often spoken about how the company offers new employees $1,000 (that may be higher now) to quit after their first week. If you want the money over the job, you’re not the right fit and they’d rather lose $1,000 and a week than invest in someone who’s not on board with the culture and vision.

People matter, even in a commodity business like groceries. Actually even more, because one of the greatest differentiators a commodity business can have is the experience they wrap around the product.

Hire smart. Hire heart.

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47 responses

47 responses to “Hire Heart”

  1. Jen Gresham says:

    So, so, so true. Not only a good lesson for employers, but those looking for work. If you take a job because you want a job, ANY job, you’re like a torpedo looking for a ship.

    Sorry you had such an unpleasant experience. Did you call the manager?

  2. Julia says:

    Incredible. So common it’s scary. Thanks for the great reminder. The more I see, the more it makes me want to give 100 percent all the time, in whatever I do.

  3. Jon Giganti says:


    Interesting stuff. I watched Gary Vaynerchuck’s inteview on Morning Joe yesterday and he talked a lot about this type of thing. In this day and age, an unhappy customer (like yourself) can reach many more people quickly than they used to. Example…you just wrote this on your blog. That means anyone in NYC that reads your stuff will probably be hesitant to buy from them. Servicing customers is so crucial in this day and age. Great post…thanks for sharing.


  4. Fred Leo says:

    Boy that is frustrating. Poor customer service kills any experience.

    I think that there are other lessons to learn here besides just the importance of hiring great employees. Employers need to set expectations and train their employees.

    Too often we assume that our employees understand what is expected of them, but this is a huge mistake. Too often employers never set expectations, and employees fail at there jobs.

    I am not saying that an employee should not have the people skills to provide customer service. This should be a given, but it is not. By setting expectations up front and re-emphasizing them often, employers will develop better employees.

  5. dogear6 says:

    Good points, but there is the whole issue of paying minimum wage also. Some do it because it’s the industry standard (like grocery stores); others because they cannot afford more.

    Passion and accountability is not limited to higher paying jobs, but more pay usually brings attracts them.

  6. Barbara says:

    Such an unfortunate moment when the market could have made a potential customer for life with just a bit of effort.

    As for hiring smart, you might like this blog post my friend wrote yesterday about what not to do in an interview. Great for laughs on a rainy day. http://pithypants.com/2011/03/09/top-ten-interviewing-tips-for-idiots/

  7. Jodi Barnes says:

    I didn’t know that Tony Hseih does that. Brilliant! I agree with Jen Gresham’s comment (torpedo looking for a ship) and I also hope that someday employers/hiring managers really get that emotional intelligence and the values that underlie it are in most cases far more important than the cognitive skills or experience an applicant claims to have. Thanks and sorry for your experience!

  8. My father ordered a hot dog and coleslaw at a restaurant known for their dogs. When it arrived, the slaw was on the dog. Dad told the person at the counter he had requested that the slaw be on the side. The person at the counter picked up the dog, shook the slaw onto the plate, put the dog back on the plate, and handed the plate back to Dad. They lost at least one customer that day.

  9. This is SO incredibly important and SUCH a passion of mine. Having paid my retail dues (a long time ago, in another lifetime) I see red when I get lousy service. When I worked the counter at a jeweler’s store, I got “into character” each morning – trying to make each customer feel special and appreciated … whether the item purchased cost $5,000 or $5.

    I once went to a huge, chain bookstore and was unable to find the book I wanted. I approached the “Information” desk, foolishly thinking that was the place to get, um, INFORMATION. I got the same treatment as you experienced. When the guy behind the desk finally deigned to acknowledge me, I asked, “Do you know where I can find such-and-such?” he responded with “On the shelf.” Given that there were probably over 100 shelves in the store (and he didn’t even point for me), that wasn’t exactly helpful.

    Your sales and customer service staff are, after your customers, your most important business asset. They are representing not only your brand, but YOU. They have the power to make you look like a hero, or something much less desirable. Don’t skimp on your staff. They count more than you know.

    • Jamie,

      That is so awesome that you and I were commenting on this practically simultaneously. And I was just over on your blog reading your follow-up comment about working in retail in the Diamond District! I love a consistent message.
      I know what you mean. I have gone into retail shops of many kinds and often the reception I get, if I am lucky, is simply a look in my general direction. If I get a hello I almost feel like I might have stumbled upon the holy grail of customer service! Cheers,


      • Hey, Peter!
        YES – there has been a trend in the air this week, and I’m loving it. It’s actually influencing some work I’m doing developing my own business. I’m feeling so passionate about this topic that I’m working it into my service/product mix. Like Godin says in “Poke the Box,” it’s all about starting things … I feel like starting a revolution around this theme! We’re taking back the customer experience!

    • Robin Bermel says:

      Agree! I used to catch it at Walgreens a lot. I found myself THANKING the employee, and maybe I’d get the reply, “No problem.” No problem? Since I was bringing them business, and the clerk had a job, I didn’t consider that my buying something was a problem. (A personal annoyance, can you tell?) If I was 80 years old, I’d probably rant about “Kids today…” Instead, I will remember that lesson and cherish every conversation, business or otherwise. Someone (probably Yogi Berra) said it well, “Business would be so much easier if we didn’t have customers.”

      • I love that saying, and I think it was good, old Yogi.
        My thought is always that if someone’s taken on that role (customer SERVICE) they need to be prepared to actually deliver service. I know not everyone is deliriously happy in their job, but maybe if they took it a little more seriously and tried to do the best job possible, they’d get more satisfaction and be happier. It’s one of those upward spirals, really.

  10. Yes, it’s sad. We have come to the point it seems where customer experiences like the above story are the rule, when they should be the very rare exception.
    It sounds like that store clerk might be writing a book of her own called “The No, Thank You Economy”, that is, if she can stop yakking, turn the cellphone off, and actually WRITE anything! 😉
    Thanks for the insight, Jonathan!


  11. Last I talked to Tony, it was now $2000. In the beginning, they had a few takers. Now, no one takes it. Zappos has become very effective at hiring the right people for the company–those who live and believe in their values.

    I made a video of our tour and insights from our visit with Tony here: http://davecrenshaw.com/video-zappos-tour-clips-and-insights-2/

    Thanks for your great posts, Jonathan!

  12. Gulp, food for thought.

    Reminds me of Randy Pausch’s $100,000 salt and pepper set – in The Last Lecture. I read the book – haven’t seen the video yet. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t already, but I bet the readership of this blog are way ahead of me on this.

    http://www.thelastlecture.com/ if you need it.

    And I think you’re right – there’s a culture thing going on as well – even the most motivated employee can dry up in the wrong environment. So it’s not just hiring, but how we bring out the best in our people.

    I guess we’d all prefer to start with stars and make them superstars.

    I heard of a supplements chain locally that actually studied their best employee to see how she did it – she got so involved with her customers that she had a fantastic sales record, and they made that part of their culture. As best they could I suppose. Apparently it went well.

    So, McGregor Theory X or Theory Y, anyone?

  13. nora says:

    There’s a large-chain supermarket near me that I hate going to, even though it’s close and some of their prices may be better than other places, because the people manning the checkout lanes are zombies. Not only do they not say basic things like “thank you” or “good morning” but even if I initiate and say thank you they give me back blank stares (seriously, I think they’re zombies). I can’t even imagine needing to find someone on the floor to help me with something. I know they’re probably not paid well and don’t want to be there, but you know what, even when I was in a minimum-wage job and didn’t care about it, I was always nice to the customers (some of whom were not-so-nice). I don’t ask much, just a simple sign that you’re human.

    Contrast that with going to Trader Joe’s – the checkout people are always friendly and even if there’s no chitchat they at least say hello and thank you. Usually they also ask if you found everything you were looking for. It’s a pleasure shopping there.

  14. Great post my friend and so very true – I don’t understand who is doing the hiring at some of these places? Unless the person being hired does such an amazing job fooling the person that is hiring. Who knows but how would the employer know in such a place that she/he is not doing a wonderful job of taking care of their customers?

    Good points Jonathan – as usual!

  15. Mitzi W says:

    I actually ‘tested’ an employee in a store the other day, in the hardware section. Now, as a woman, I’ve gotten this response before in hardware sections/stores, so I was ready to test. There was an older gentleman employee working in the hardware dept. of [store that rhymes with ball-cart], and he was scanning items on the shelves with his Telxon. My daughter and I were looking for an item, and not finding it. I said, loud enough for him to hear, “huh, I don’t see it; let’s look one more time.” No response. Then I said, “I guess we’ll have to go to [store that rhymes with bows]. Still no response. I mean, we were standing right next to the guy and he was pointedly ignoring us! You’d think there are enough people looking for jobs that they could hire ones with good customer service skills, for goodness’ sake!

  16. Marc Seigel says:

    It is sad that not only have we all had this experience, but it seems to be becoming more of a regular occurrence. But there is a new trend in trying to combat this problem. Here’s what happened to me:

    I went to a Red Robin for lunch, on a weekday, with my family (wife and 2 boys–a 3 1/2 yo and 8 months), and 2 friends. We waited over an hour to get our food and actually complained twice about how long everything took. No one in the restaurant made any effort to make things right. So, while at the table, my friend tweeted about the terrible service and put Red Robin as the hashtag. About 2 hours after we left the restaurant, Red Robin corporate contacted him, apologized profusely for our bad experience, called the location to tell the manager and the manager called him to offer a free meal. So, there are people in the business world who still care about the customers.

  17. Connie says:

    It always amazes me when this happens. It reminds me of the Pretty Woman scene when Julia Roberts flaunts her purchases to the retail person who snubbed her. Living in Aspen, I see entitled employees treat well-intentioned customers horribly as much as I see professional employees treat ugly-acting customers kindly. Bottom line, do good work, no matter your job. After all, karma can be a real BI***!

  18. Megz says:

    So on the I think that has happened to all of us at some point of time the world over. I do discount the bad days everyone has on job at times but if this kind of behavior is repeated, I normally tell the owner. Sometimes, it is just a reflection of the management’s atitude towards their staff.. If they don’t care for the staff, then why will the staff care for biz?!!

  19. Marie davis says:

    Yes, people count every step of the way! I caught the phone seminar last night, thanks it was fun. Good information and interesting guests. Sometimes I had a hard time understanding who was talking. Maybe it was just me and my tearfully inadequate ears?! Johnathan thanks for your posts I always enjoy them!

  20. Janine Elias says:

    When I was walking my dog this morning, we walk every day, I was listening to Hill’s Principles of Success and low and behold he was talking about giving more then paid for… the concept of stepping up in your life and your profession and giving more then expected without and expectaion of return. What a wonderful concept that many people have never thought of… the hidden benifit is you end up getting back so much more then you ever imagined possible when you give without expectation.

    It’s not only important to make the correct sellection when hiring we must continually train and educate our staff and ourselves on the importance and power of connection. You never know who is standing infront of you they could be the next Bill Gates, Oprah, or President of this fine country and if you connected with them, you never know, you could go with them for the ride of your life!

    One of my dear friends, who happens to be a successful business owner always says, “Go Big or Go Home!”

  21. OH yeah! this brings up changing the internal dialogue TO: “How Can I Serve?” vs the ‘unconscious’ “What’s in it for me?” Like I LIKE to say, SERVING RULES! thanks Jonathan, for yet another heart centered ‘conscious’ post.

  22. I wonder what causes poor customer service behavior. Are they just having a bad day? Are they unable to muster up any enthusiasm for their job after being beaten down so much by rude customers? Do they think they’re stuck, and wasting their potential? My first job after immigrating the States was Burger King fry queen. Boy, did that lay the foundation of empathy for hourly workers!

    At WalMart one year the young female cashier sighed in annoyance over every item she rang up for me. I almost felt like apologizing for buying too many of their clearance Christmas ornaments. Then I started getting insulted because it was my patronage and that of other customers that insured she had a job, after all. My daughter put it in perspective for me: “Mom, she makes minimum wage. You make enough to splurge on non-essentials like ornaments.”

  23. Irene Ross says:

    I heard this great example last night–someone was telling me how they frequently order from Soap.Com because of the great service, etc. They used to have free delivery with one order size, but raised it by $10. This person didn’t know about it and when he got his order he saw S&H; called the store to ask if he could just purchase more so that the S&H charge would be wiped out and was told “I’ll just wipe it out for you now, as is.” Needless to say, he was most impressed and THAT’s how you keep loyal customers!

  24. That actually was the owner’s fault, not the employee’s fault. The owner is the one who didn’t create the right culture or hire the right people. It had nothing to do with the employee.

    Customer service is your most important marketing.

  25. And the sad part is that the clerk doesn’t realize that giving good customer service is more fun and adds to one’s life more than being indifferent and giving poor service. So you can justify good customer service for more reasons than business. You could say that you are being selfish because you are acting in your own best interest in doing something that make your life more enjoyable and practicing a very valuable habit that will pay rich dividends later in life.

  26. Zoe says:

    SO true!

    What these businesses don’t realise is that mistreated customers now have an added advantage – they can tell others about it on the internet. In the old days it use to be tell 10 people. Now angry customers can tell millions on the net.

    Yesterday I spoke to a manager of a after-school-care company that incorrectly billed me (I already paid). The manager had a coarse, abrasive personality even though they were in the wrong and she should’ve apologised. She tells me the bill has been corrected and hangs up because I pointed the error out. Won’t be using them EVER AGAIN.

  27. TomC says:

    I have to laugh at this because it happens to us all the time. My wife will say something like “This is the last time I shop here”. And the clerk telepathically says “Good, the less customers the better. I hate being here anyway.”

    I always tell her that the clerk doesn’t care. He would rather you buy less so he doesn’t have to ring up as much, or better yet never come in again.

    I think the thing that bothers me most is the lack of integrity. Even if I was working for minimum wage and doing a job that I didn’t care about at all, I would still have this sense of duty to do a good job, be friendly and helpful. I actually couldn’t be rude or do a bad job.

    Can you find meaning in flipping burgers, for minimum wage, when you know you’re only working there for the summer?

    • Mao Yang says:

      You made some very good points! I felt this way about my last job. I was always surrounded by people who acted exactly like the person you just illustrated as being glad because there were less customers. Whenever it got busy, my coworkers were upset and when we had nothing to do they would complain about how boring it was. It was so hard to predict when they would be satisfied. The worst part was I just ended up hating my job as well in the end so I quit.

  28. Dom says:

    I live in London UK, where poor service is the norm, far worse than the USA (say my London friends who visit the US).

    I suspect that most employees contempt for the customer is exceeded only by the employer’s contempt for their employees. The responsibility is jointly with employer AND employee.

    Examples: waiters who get visibly irritated if you take more than 10 seconds to choose what to eat, healthfood stores where they hate being interrupted if you ask where something is (just like your experience Jonathan, but mine was in Fresh & Wild, a health food store in central London), the list is endless.

  29. Marelisa says:

    This is so, so true. I would rather shop at a place that doesn’t carry everything that I usually buy, but where the employees are helpful and cheeerful, then shop at a place with every convenience you can think of, but with bad service. You can think of everything when opening a business–the best products, fabulous location, a catchy jingle–but if your employees are out there blowing it for you, you’re not going to do well.

  30. Mark Freddy Farrell says:

    Go in, or send someone in undercover. If you dont like what you see, get rid of them.
    Getting the right person(s), is a must. Passion to do well, no matter what is, and Do it right is vital, – Do it, or do something Else.

  31. Anthony Onesto says:

    You summarize my last 10 years of work in one very telling and straight forward post. Talent choices and the experiences employees go through are hyper-critical to the experience your customer gets. That line employee that probably earns a min of $8 bucks could have cost them $3,000 in revenue. Retail just does not get it, corporate services world even less. Its so easy to understand, but not to execute.

    I also think this applies to small businesses in your area – hire smart, share the profits and your employees will ensure a great experience.

    Great post.

  32. Irene Ross says:

    Wow, I’m just obsessed with this topic. It seems that every day I have an experience with customer service–both good and bad. Unfortunately, I’ve been having the same bad experience with a company for the past few days–not only did they make continual mistakes and I’d keep correcting it– only to have them keep making the same mistake–but I’ve gotten rudeness, yawning (!) and even an incorrect shipping number. Finally, I just called them this morning to tell them to cancel the order (which, by the way, was very large) and when asked why I replied “because I absolutely will NOT do business with a company like yours!”

  33. Sukhi says:

    Too Funny, in a warped way.

    Yes, you can’t teach heart, along with respect, consideration and a loving demeanour.

    I have hired peeps for qualifications and its been great in the short term and a nightmare in the long run. Today I go through a process where I learn if they are “teachable” and assess whether they have the humanistic loving nature that really matters at the end of it all.

    Did you find your rice protein…. ; ) ?

  34. Great insights. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this very informative post. 😉

  35. Ted Kusio says:

    Wow, that stinks.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve usually had good experiences at that Fairway, and usually felt they’re good customer service people.
    But one bad apple…

  36. Yes, yes, yes. I’m a storyteller working in marketing and copywriting, and I’m always amazed at bad customer service. I guess because I know that Customer Frustration Specialists do more to break brand promises and fray a brands edges than clever ad campaigns can ever to fix it. In other words, a your brand is in your trenches. I’ve heard “hire for character” because skills can be taught. I like hire for heart too, because a new employee’s love for a brand, her clear, palpable belief in the value of its product, services, or mission, will be SO persuasive. Tony Hseih gets it right because he doesn’t continue to employ people who don’t become fans of Zappos. Yes, yes, yes. Employ your fans.

  37. Mao Yang says:

    Jonathan, I’ve had several experiences like this one so I totally understand where you are coming from. I would also say that sometimes it’s not all the employees fault too though. The employer’s are sometimes the ones who fail to train their employees properly.

  38. Missy says:

    Without going into detail, I had a bad experience over the phone with the receptionist at my doctor’s office several years ago. When I mentioned it to my doctor at my next visit, he apologized and said, “A business is only as good as the person who answers the phone.” I’ve thought of that dozens of times over the years and completely agree. Good customer service endears me to a company for life. Bad customer service? I usually just “fire” those companies and take my business elsewhere.

    I’m new to your site and, from what I’ve seen, I like your perspective. Thanks.

  39. This is so true. Hire people for whom that job is an hobby. I myself have worked in fields which I never liked. It is totally unsatisfactory. Once we are in the field where our heart is – Life is great. Hiring heart is correct way to go.

  40. Giovanna says:

    I typed heart on google and found this post… ‘hire heart’… you made me smile Jonathan.

    I thought… ok… sure I´m finding this… it´s Jonathan…

    hehehe… tks