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Posted: September 20, 2012

Weak links sink ships

Have you thought about what yours costs you?

Todd Ordal

I made one of my frequent trips to my favorite Boulder liquor store the other day. I trained as a sommelier — just for fun, because I don’t work in that field — and enjoy wine … regularly! I’ve spent lots of money in this store.

At the top of its game for many years, this shop is high-volume with good prices and  knowledgeable people. I spent a few minutes talking about Italian reds with one of them on this trip. A typical experience.

However, when I went to pay, it quickly became my formerly favorite wine shop. After I unloaded six of my 12 bottles, a snotty checkout clerk suggested I go to the other open lane because apparently ringing up a six-pack of beer for the one other customer in her lane overwhelmed her. I declined.

When I offered to get an empty box for her—I was trying to purchase 12 bottles of wine—she just shrugged. When I finished paying, her response was, “There you go,” rather than, “Thank you.” I hefted the box into my own cart and left. Coincidentally a new, large liquor store just opened closer to my home. Guess I’ll check it out.

It’s extremely hard as a retailer to manage every transaction to perfection. (I used to run 350 retail units, so I appreciate the challenge!) However, this gal was a train wreck, and anybody with half of their attention span tied behind their back could have seen it.

Here’s a business with a good reputation and millions of dollars in inventory that’s losing customers because it has a nitwit at the checkout stand. A small cog in a large machine could cost the store — using lifetime value of a customer as a measurement — hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We’ve all been victims of a weak link. I ride bikes and bought an expensive one a couple of years ago. A grouchy bike mechanic caused me to buy my next one at a different shop.

My wife and I recently went to a highly touted restaurant and had a waitress who apparently thought she was far too important to be pleasant to people spending hard-earned money on dinner. We won’t go back. The chef in back might be the best in town, but a bad attitude in the front of the restaurant nullified his greatest work.

We all have weak points in our business models. What’s yours? Have you thought about what it’s costing you?

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at,  303-527-0417 or

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Readers Respond

I have been to a number of establishments that I would never return to again because of customer service. HOWEVER there is another side. I have found that in many businesses, employees are treated like trash. They get paid minimum wage and their jobs are LITERALLY on the line if they call in sick (with no pay of course). So if you treat people like they are valued and pay them more than minimum wage as well as allow them to be human (getting sick occasionally without job loss threat) and make them feel like they are an important part of the running of the business you will be much less likely to have bitter employees! Think about that all you business owners out there who treat your employees like expendable objects. By Elizabeth on 2012 10 03
Yes, we all have a bad day from time to time life happens. Does this mean we are allowed to bring others into our misserable Customer service has gone down hill because we are suppose to excuse the people who want the world to know they are down and so they will try to make sure others suffer. Our country is suffering because no one is accountable for their actions. I too am in customer service industry and I am here because we have customers. So I always do my best to "never" feel I am having a bad day. It is the job of the customer service rep to make that grumpy customer feel better. Buck up America, we need to do better. By debbie on 2012 10 02
Hi Jim, There are numerous ways to measure service quality and that is one tactic. If service levels are critical to your business, it should be imperative to find a way to measure and manage it so that you can improve it, recover from failures and reward great service. Your question about me investing my time in improving the service of the store is a good one. If they were the only game in town, I'd might do so. They are not. Once again, I have had many good experiences there, but only used them as an example of how expensive weak links can be. By Todd Ordal on 2012 09 30
Realizing that as owners/managers, we rarely get a chance to engage customers that leave, a feedback system can be vital. What if the troublesome cashier was to give out comment cards with "Did you have a pleasant checkout experience?" as question 1. By Jim Kreinbrink on 2012 09 26
The liquor store owner/manager would appreciate knowing that despite having well trained, engaged employees in one part of the establishment, there is a weak link at the front. When sales suffer, maybe they figure things out. Over time. And the snotty clerk will be fired or laid off, only to apply at the big liquor mart down the street. And so she follows you into your future. Wouldn't it be better to invest in and protect your relationship with your favorite liquor store? Doing so means many more years of pleasant wine buying experience. By Jim Kreinbrink on 2012 09 26
Dear Common Man, The service in this establishment has always been rather “uncommon" in a good way and the product selection and other features are good. Having spent decades in the service world—including many years working behind a counter—I appreciate good service. (Just had brilliant service at a restaurant last night and let the service provider and owner know of it.) But I am concerned by poor service because it can put the business (e.g. their people; both owners and workers) in jeopardy. My call is to management to watch for the weak links in their business—be they systems, suppliers, real estate or people—because even if all else is ship shape, one weak link in the system can cause loss of business and employment. That is a tragedy, because it is correctable. By Todd Ordal on 2012 09 24
I to am disappointed in this article. not only is it not articulate but the fact that you chose to insult this person is a tragedy. I have been in a customer service role for several years and know that I have had several bad days. it is very hard to keep a smile everyday all the time. i am sure you would not understand being that you do not have to work in such a role. the fact that you chose to look down on these people makes you look like a corporate cold blooded mitt romney type that we need less of in these united states. By common man on 2012 09 22
While I agree that it is kind of us to bring poor service to management's attention, and I often do, there is no obligation to do so. When a business fails they cannot look at their potential customers and say, "If they had only fulfilled their obligation, we would have been successful." By Todd Ordal on 2012 09 21
Well...don't these two comments above do a fantastic job of illustrating just what is wrong with America right now?! Entitlement mentality abounds! That clerk and that waitress don't "deserve to have a bad day" And the. Take I out on the CUSTOMERS who make their job POSSIBLE. Fire them both and do it now!!!! Good job Todd! Don't let these whiny socialists change your message of accountability....they are likely the people who would complain the loudes if it were their OWN special date, or shopping experience that were ruined. By David on 2012 09 20
After all we are just people. There are strategies for engaging the harried clerk, having fun with the grouchy mechanic, or befriending the lousy waiter. If none of those work call a manager the next day or write a helpful note. If that provides no joy then vote with your feet you have held your end in the social bargain that is retail. What would you have done in your old position for some mature thoughtful negative feedback? I bet you would have been elated and rewarded it with an apology and a minor incentive to return. We all make mistakes, even managers in hiring, and the more compelling story for us all is how to work back from a bad hire or poor observation of our minimum wage front line. Thanks for some good writting. Maybe a little less grumpy consumer in the future? By Doug McIntire on 2012 09 20
I'm a little disappointed in this one Todd. Now you likely exaggerated for your point, a point which is well taken, but it seems to miss the bigger point. A weak link is aweful but it happens. I bet the girl is gone from that wine store but no thanks to you. As you ran so many retail stores the more compelling story would be how you as a manager avoided the attrition caused by weak links. My bet is, as a manager, you would have killed for some mature feedback from your customers. You know too that often the weak link is the manager who hired incompetent help but you can't know that for sure without a little effort. I have had to put the wrong people on the job before and it was painful but then it got managed. By Doug McIntire on 2012 09 20
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