At Your Service: Oct. 21, 2009

This weekend, after the flurries stopped and the sun pushed the clouds away, I raked the leaves in my yard. It was exhilarating to be out in the crisp autumn air and stretching my muscles. In point of fact, it was colder than was comfortable and the leaves had composted just enough to make the task a chore.
It is often the case during the course of doing business that the magnitude of the task at hand seems to overwhelm the desire to complete it. This is particularly true when the “task” involves our relationships with employees or customers. Like leaves falling, the problem will occur again and again. Unless you want more of the same, action should be taken early.
As is not uncommon for our local shopkeepers, John has a very small staff (read: him, his wife and three part-time employees who each work at least one day a week). The store is open every day, does a brisk business and has a customer base that counts on him for both goods and wise counsel. He has had the same staff for a couple of years and was confident that things ran smoothly when he was not there.
John conducted a sales analysis last month. He tries to be on hand during the store’s busiest times but he was surprised to discover a dramatic decline in sales when he was not there. When he went back and reviewed the previous year, he began to see a pattern. The decline could be matched to the times when Mary, an old family friend, was working. It didn’t seem to matter what day of the week it was, whenever Mary was there, sales fell off.
Mary is the warm, fuzzy type and has a tendency to share her opinions with everyone she meets. Her opinions range from the performance of politicians (always inadequate) to how other people are conducting their affairs (particularly their affairs, real or imagined). John considers her to be a busy body, but never thought of it in terms of his business. He had never addressed with Mary the fact that she seemed to sometimes talk the ears off those she was supposed to be serving. He had more often thought of her as simply being friendly and, therefore, an asset to the business.
The realization that sales fell off whenever Mary worked led John to observe her performance more carefully. He immediately noticed that customers tended to walk by the storefront before entering. When Mary was in view, people tended to keep going. Retrospectively, he realized that this had been going on for a long time. He decided to talk to Mary and address the issue.
The conversation between the two did not go well. John was angry (as much with himself as with Mary) and took an accusatory stance. Mary was shocked by the thought that her behavior was chasing customers away and became defensive. Within minutes, the tone had escalated and Mary was out of a job.
Had John talked to Mary the first time he noticed customers avoiding her in the store, it might not have become a problem. Mary never intended to turn people off; she considered her conversations to be idle banter. His unwillingness to deal with the issue early in her employment enabled the behavior to continue. There was no satisfaction in the outcome, John was without an employee and lost a friend in the process.
Addressing behavior problems with an employee early on makes it possible for people to make a change before it becomes a pattern.