It’s Up To You

Tom Peters

Dear Front-line Employee:

I walked in with my eyes open. I knew you wouldn’t take it lying down. But I’m not finished.

A couple of months ago I wrote a column on “economic patriotism.” I begged Americans to forget protectionism and spur competitiveness by blasting any of our producers who dare to offer up shoddy goods and service. My perilous step: I didn’t let front-line employees off the hook. While understanding that bosses are clearly the chief source of our troubles, I nonetheless urged folks to bark at anyone at any level delivering rotten service—including reservation clerks, waiters, and service technicians.

The mail poured in. About 50 percent agreed with me: No surprise, these letters mostly came from bosses. The rest tagged me for insensitivity, ignorance, and downright malice. “It’s obvious you’ve never ‘been there,'” said one, expressing a common theme. Most of this “other half” were front-line employees, who reminded me that they cared a lot, but were utterly powerless to initiate changes—or rectify wrongs for customers.

Look, I know you’re beleaguered. And I agree that the front line is seldom to blame. After all, I attack bosses for a living! (Just follow these columns over time.) But the “powerlessness defense” doesn’t wash for front-liners who want job security and decent wages in the chaotic years ahead.

In fact, I have “been there”: I’ve bagged groceries, counted nickels from slot machines (even gotten the money-counter’s hand rash), waited on endless tables, washed mountains of dishes, looked up catalog prices in an architect’s office. Hey, I inspected sewers one summer in Anne Arundel County, Maryland!

I defined “low man on the totem pole” in most of these instances and had my share of creeps for bosses. None that I can remember chanted the ’90s’ all-purpose mantra, “empowerment.”

Nonetheless, I learned something on each of those jobs. (It took real effort on occasion.) And I never stopped talking back to my bosses! My Navy battalion commander once caught me short with, “You’re the only officer in this outfit who seems to forget to salute.” We’re pals 25 years later—and I consider him the chief mentor from my formative professional years.

My point is not to congratulate myself for making the most of shabby circumstances: But it is to say that if you fail to take the initiative—no matter how rotten or stultifying the setting—you basically deserve your tawdry fate.

You devoutly wish there were better bosses, more “enlightened” ones. So do I. For your sake, and for America’s. But life deals whatever cards it chooses, and they seldom result in a string of royal flushes.

Still, 20 percent of you will rise above the smog, will repeatedly take the initiative, will get punched in the kisser, will get up again and start all over. The rest will tend to vegetate, suffer periodic layoffs—and wax indignant about “powerlessness” and “helplessness.”

Here’s why I’m not even sympathetic:

Each day a customer-contact person has perhaps 100 opportunities to learn, grow, shine, forbear—or retreat, scowl, snarl, nurture cynicism. The good news, and top customer-contact people know this, is that the most irate customers, with rare exceptions, mainly want an ear and a show of empathy and attention. They’re not idiots. They don’t expect the airline ticketing agent to repair a grounded plane. They don’t expect a flight attendant to make blinding fog evaporate or thunder squalls change course. They just want you to take a minute to listen, to be on their side, to be sympathetic, honest, and as mad as they are at Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame).

Those who grit their teeth and take that minute to empathize will win over the long haul. It is as simple as that.

Will the boss or the company be unfailingly appreciative of those who continually go the extra mile for the customer? Hell no! But so what? It’s your life, not your boss’s, not good old ABC Hotel’s. At the very least, your efforts will have brightened some others’ day—which is what counts in the end, even if you’re not religious. At the most, you will have learned how easy it is, with practice, to be a little bit special, to stick out a little bit, to be a little bit different—and to seize the initiative despite daunting (or even demeaning) circumstances.

I don’t suggest you’ll end up as rich as Walmart founder Sam Walton. (Incidentally, though Sam is a shrewd retailer, decency is his real long suit.) But you can improve the odds tenfold that you’ll forge ahead, somehow or other. After all, most of life, like it or not, is “life on the job.” Working at making yourself miserable (easy to do and always justifiable, given others’ failure, even in “great” companies, to grasp your sterling characteristics) denies rewards for and punishes only one person in the end, and that’s you.

So, completely fair or not, I’m going to keep urging dissatisfied customers to arch their backs, even at you. How will you respond?

Sincerely (and optimistically) yours,


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