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Why Cranky Employees Undermine Customer Service: The Call for Executive Leadership

November 8, 2010
Updated April 5, 2016

The interior of a Loblaws supermarket in Toronto

A Loblaws supermarket in Toronto

The landscape keeps changing in consumer land. Several years ago Target announced that it was entering the Canadian marketplace by buying Zellars, a wobbling discount chain owned by The Bay. The juggernaut of American retailers, Walmart, has grown spectacularly since purchasing Woolco some 20 years ago.

Domestic retailers such as Canadian Tire and Loblaws were scared, examining ways to retain a respectable amount of market share. Since writing the original post and a subsequent update a year later, Target’s foray into Canada’s grocery scene proved to be a major disaster. Target quickly packed its bags and headed for the exit, tail between its legs, back to the Land of the Free.

I wrote about going through the Loblaw’s checkout with one of my favorite cashiers, who blurted out that she was quitting along with many other experienced employees. My local store was converting to a Loblaws’ wholly-owned subsidiary The Real Canadian Superstore. She didn’t have to say any more (though she did) since I knew that Loblaws has pulled similar manoeuvres across Canada in its numerous locations.

My soon-to-depart favorite cashier had been told she’d have to take a pay cut. So she and dozens of others quit their jobs, taking a small severance in the process. In one large Loblaws store on the other side of Ottawa, I was told that over 90 experienced employees had quit when the company had pulled the same stunt. That was a few years ago.

I’ve said before in other posts that what we’re witnessing in North America is a race to the bottom when it comes to shaving off operating costs and watching customer service sink further.  The topic of poor customer service across all industries continues its unabated march towards the lowest common denominator. And in the process, services sector workers continue to get squeezed.

Is this the type of society that Canadians wish to create?

Fast Food

I had just finished my weekly groceries in my neighborhood supermarket and was admiring the almost completed extensive renovations. It was nice to see that Loblaws, Canada’s largest supermarket chain, had decided to upgrade a store that had become rundown and grimy.

I approached the cashier, who ignored me while complaining to a colleague standing beside her. Rather than check my email on my wireless while she priced and bagged my groceries, I decided to listen in to the conversation. Why not, after all I was helping pay her wages and she should have been giving me her undivided attention.

The gist of her beef was that management was focusing a lot of effort on training part-timers, especially students. My cashier went on about the crappy wages Loblaws pays, how much union dues gets deducted from paycheques, the lousy collective agreement the union signed, and how management is essentially incompetent.

This was getting interesting, given my long interest in customer and leadership.

My cashier looked to be in her mid forties and a full-timer, someone who’s worked for Loblaws quite a while. She was loading my bags and still not paying any attention to me, all the while still fuming to her co-worker. At that point I piped up: “My youngest daughter works at one of your large stores. She’s a college student who recently started working 20 plus hours a week.”

Suddenly I had her attention. She looked up at me and said, “She earns minimum wage. The way our collective agreement is set up, future increases in the provincial minimum wage will stall any increases in hourly pay from Loblaws. She’d do better working at Walmart where there’s no union dues.”

Whoa. This was a feisty employee!

She went on griping about how bad management was, including the union, all the while I nodded politely. I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older couple standing patiently with only a few grocery items on the conveyor belt. They were watching the cashier. I was turning to leave when the cashier spun around and let out one final stream of comments about management.

All I could do was laugh to myself as I left the store.

Fast Food Worker It seems as if it’s a race to the bottom when it comes to crappy customer service. It’s a hit or miss proposition to find an employee who’s actually customer-focused, who can let all the shit slide that management dishes out. I only have to drive across the parking lot to the run-down Walmart store to discover truly apathetic customer service, where smiles are scarce as hens teeth. Or around the corner to Home Depot for a similar experience.

What’s going on? Is this mainly a management problem, in which the absence of effective leadership and the treating of employees as simpletons are manifesting into a how-low-can-you-go customer experience?

The problem is not just specific to big box stores. It’s endemic wherever you go: boutique clothing stores, mid-sized stores, restaurants, airlines, hotels, etc. The link between happy employees and excellent customer service has been talked about for years, with naysayers and believers still battling it out.

To illustrate this debate, just minutes before arriving at the cashier that same day at Loblaws I experienced super service from a young woman in the natural foods section. I was trying to find a specific product that was not on the shelves. She didn’t have an immediate answer, but said she’d go to back room to look through boxes to see if it was still available. She suggested that I come back in 10 minutes. When I returned, she immediately came up to me and explained that it appeared that the product had been dropped from the store line-up. She apologized and suggested a competitor product. All the while that she was running around trying to please me she was limping badly. I didn’t ask her why, but I guessed that she had injured her foot. But she kept a pleasant and helping disposition.

Does this Loblaws employee love her job? I doubt it strongly. Is she “happy?” Hmmmm. Good question. What do YOU think?

Being “happy,” while a necessary condition to excellence in customer service, is not a sufficient one. Employees need to be actively engaged in the running of the organization (public or private), encompassing such vital practices as:

a) understanding where they fit in the corporate mission and vision,
b) enabling people to self-empower themselves to create and innovate,
c) questioning business processes in constructive ways to improve productivity and service, and
d) developing a mindset around continuous learning.

My cashier that afternoon came up short on the above practices. How much of this is her responsibility? Or is it strictly that of the management at Loblaws?

A few days later I shared the experience with my college-age daughter, who retorted: “Has that Loblaws employee worked at Walmart? I have. It’s a hole. You should have told her to shove it, Dad. I like Loblaws management.”

I love Gen Y. Everything’s black and white to them. They tell it like they see it.

Each of us is responsible for our own morale. And when we work in a repressive workplace then we have to empower ourselves to take charge. We can’t change a lousy workplace or organization, but we can choose to leave it on our own terms. My cashier that day may wish to consider this as a way of maintaining her own dignity and health.

Changing corporate culture is not a tactical exercise. It’s about engaging the hearts and minds of people.
– Jim Taggart

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary k Australia permalink
    December 30, 2012 9:22 am

    I was very interested in reading your article as I used to work for dominion stores in 1990, and I have since migrated to Australia,where I run my own business. Our labour laws require employers to pay min $15/hr + 4 weeks holidays( pro rated 1 week every 3 months), 9% rrsp contribution, 15 days personal leave days, and all public holidays. I can tell you that when my family and I come back to Canada for our holidays, we feel we get great customer service. It’s totally non existent in Australia and as employers, I’m expected to be grateful that my employees turn up. I don’t know what the answer is, but the acknowledgment that without customers, we wouldn’t need employees needs to be addressed with employees.

    • December 30, 2012 1:12 pm

      Thanks, Mary, for sharing the Australian experience. I recall a business article I read a while ago that talked about what you describe. Yes, there’s no necessary correlation between what employees are paid and customer service. In Canada, customer service is all over the place. I’ve always found it interesting how I can go from one store to another and have a totally different experience, whether it’s retail or hospitality. Incidentally, minimum wage in Ontario is about $10.25/hour (but a lot lower in the Atlantic Provinces).

      There’s a perception that customer service is better in the U.S. I’ve traveled a fair bit south of the border. My conclusion is that this is not necessarily so. Minimum wage in many states is just over $7/hour. The race to the bottom in wages in the U.S., with Canada not far behind, spurred on by globalization, is probably contributing to how employees treat customers.

      With that said, wages are a poor indicator of how people serve people. More important is careful recruitment and ongoing training, recognition programs to retain good employees, and firing those who fail to meet expectations. And it’s the last word “expectations” that needs to be reinforced everyday by management, which must not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

  2. Jim permalink
    January 4, 2012 5:08 pm

    I like anyone, hate lousy customer service but I can’t really blame the lady completely for the lousy service you recieved at Loblaws. Wages have been stagnant for years in Canada and purchasing power has been steadily eroding as well. To then here about how CEO’s in Canada are making off like bandits with a average 27% increase in compensation over last year only further demoralizes working people. The only thing saving the heads of these people are that we are not uncomfortable enough about it yet. You only have to look around the world to see what happens when people get uncomfortable enough.

    • January 4, 2012 5:16 pm

      I agree about Canadians not being “uncomfortable” enough to protest. I expect that in the year ahead, things will come to a “head” as our economy begins to implode in upon itself. You’ve probably seen the news piece about the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report on the obscene CEO pay packages. Canadians are sheep since we’ve had it good for decades.

  3. October 7, 2011 11:23 pm

    Sue and I have done plenty of shopping in New England, and 2008 did our legendary cross-America train trip. Customer stinks almost everywhere, including online shopping. The notable exception is L.L. Bean, in business for almost 100 years. Whether in their main store in Freeport, Maine, in their factory outlets or teleshopping, L.L. Bean’s service is an experience not to be missed.

    • October 8, 2011 9:13 am

      I visited the L.L. Bean store in Freeport about 25 years ago and am glad to hear it’s still just as great.

  4. October 7, 2011 10:19 pm

    And here in North Africa, I’ve been telling all my British friends what great customer service we have in America compared to here, and in England. Looks like I’m wrong! What a shocking change……..


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