What is the value of the fearless employee? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

Somehow in recent years it seems we’ve made empowerment and engagement into “black box” processes shrouded in mystique and worthy of perpetual research, not to mention the source of income for a large number of consulting groups.

What if we simply made both aspects of work far less complex and tried something that has previously been suggested: Take fear out of the working equation?

This is of course easier said than done, but it is also a lot less expensive than most of the alternatives.

One Tuesday I was in Bellingham with a couple of hours to spare, so I headed for a location I enjoy in the Flatiron Building operated by The Woods Coffee company. I like this particular shop and another they have at Boulevard Park because each is unique and has been designed to fit into its local surroundings. This shop also offered the now essential Wi-Fi connection at no charge and had lots of place to plug in a laptop, which in my view was a de facto invitation to sit down and make yourself at home.

Upon arriving, I ordered my large regular coffee and parked myself with the intention of catching up on some reading, which I proceeded to do. No single cup of coffee, large or otherwise, was going to last me two hours, so after about 45 minutes it was time for a refill.

I went up to the counter and found that I had missed a shift change and a new crew of people were going to serve me. No matter; they saw the empty cup in my hand,assumed my intention and offered me a refill for a minimal charge. I reached for the change in my pocket and was surprised to find nothing there.

I had initially paid with a $10 bill and had other expectations. Maybe I had left the change in my ball cap when I set it on the table, so I went back to look for it.

Oh dear, no change on the table. Another hopeful search of the pocket yielded nothing, so then what? A check of my memory of the first exchange provided no experience of having received my change.

As usual, I had been all chatty with the barista and had possibly managed to distract both her and myself. (My wife has seen this routine a hundred times and it seems to get worse as I get older).

So now, I was faced with a choice to either pay the price of cuteness—in this case a little more than $7—or throw myself at the mercy of strangers and see if I could beg for my money back. My first thought was “Oh well, serves you right for not paying attention. Just pay for your refill and learn your lesson.”

Then I thought, “No, I didn’t get my change, and if I leave without making a request, I am doing both myself and this business a disservice, because I know it will stick in my mind and affect my attitude about coming back.”

Back to the front counter I went. There, I met a Woods’ employee named Danika.

Moments later, my faith in the value of fearless employees was renewed.

I explained what I thought had happened, and Danika asked if I had my original receipt. I checked and found that I did not.

“OK,” she said. “Do you recall about what time you came in?”

I told her. She went to the register and within moments had located the record of the transaction—pretty cool stuff I thought. Danika printed out a copy of my receipt, which clearly showed the amount of the purchase, the amount I had offered in payment along with a statement that change had been given.

“I see that,” I said, “and I have no memory of receiving my change and have looked through all my things and cannot find it.”

From previous experiences, I was now ready for a number of possible responses from Danika: “You’ll have to come back when my manager is here,” “I am sorry but there is nothing I can do,” “I can give you a receipt for store credit,” or an eye roll and a quick trot to the back room.

Instead, Danika opened the register, in full view of a colleague but without even glancing away, counted out my change and handed it to me with an apology for the inconvenience. As soon as the change was returned, her colleague piped up, “Do you still want that refill?”

Call me easy, but that was an outstanding exchange and one that has earned my continuing return business.

What was the cost to Woods Coffee? Maybe $7 and change or maybe not, depending on what truly occurred.

What did they get for their investment? One customer’s loyalty, plus this column—all because an employee was not afraid to make a decision consistent with what the company says it is about.

How would your employees respond in a similar situation?

Management developer Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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