Just One New Year’s Resolution: Hold the Scotch Tape

Tom Peters

It was a little thing. I went to buy some recordings at a classical music store in Menlo Park, California, where I’ve shopped since it opened. Despite my request that the clerk not do so, he put my purchases in a bag at the check-out counter, about four feet from the front door. Then he sealed the paper bag with a sizeable strip of Scotch tape.

I walked out, got into my car, opened the bag, started to slip a cassette into the player—and then I boiled over. I meticulously peeled off the Scotch tape and walked back to the store. I handed it to the clerk and said, “I’ve shopped here for years, bought over $1,000 worth of goods from you. I don’t steal. Besides I was only 48 inches from the door, and in your line of sight all the time. Forget doing business with me again.” I’ve kept my word.

I know that some people steal cassettes. And perhaps that Scotch tape was meant to keep the cassette from falling out of my unwanted bag.

Another case in point: While checking into a $140-a-night hotel in Atlanta recently, a computer generated my name, business address, and phone number at the top of the check-in form, which the clerk handed me. He said, “Please fill out your name and business address and phone number at the bottom.” “But it’s all accurate up here,” I replied, pointing to the top of the form. He insisted, “That doesn’t matter. Print it down here.” When I refused, he snapped, “You have to.” Not wishing to hold up a queue of weary travelers, I compromised and drew arrows from the top of the form, where my name was, to the line that said “Name”; then I wrote after the arrow, “Ditto.” I repeated the exercise for each entry. Resigned to my intransigence, he gave up and turned over my key.

Up in my room, the standard insults awaited. Despite the stiff room tab, the coat hangers had been made irremovable; that is, thief-proof. So much for my need to hang a suit in the shower to steam out wrinkles. And it was tough to watch TV from the easy chair, because the remote control was bolted to the bedside table, next to the bolted-down alarm clock.

Mickey-Mouse rules, powerless sales and service employees, and the assumption of crookedness are dumb-jerk ways to run a business. But they are the norm.

I’ve lauded before $1.6 billion specialty retailer Nordstrom. In dozens of small ways, its logo, “No Problem at Nordstrom,” is implemented by front-line people who are empowered to meet most needs or fix problems of any magnitude on the spot.

Likewise, fast-growing and highly profitable University National Bank and Trust of Palo Alto refuses to believe that its customers run close to the wind. Bounce a check, and the teller will spend five minutes trying to talk you out of letting the bank charge a bounced-check fee: “You were late getting back from vacation.” “You just overlooked it.” The unique assumption is that you are of good will and sound mind.

The root of the problem is the other half of the story. We managers treat our employees at least as poorly as we treat our customers. Many of us try to shrink them, via the staff psychologist and a battery of psychological tests, before we hire them. Others violate their privacy via lie detectors and the increasing use of urinalysis. We leave them no doubt that we assume they are crooked, drug-abusing idiots.

And if we do deign to let them in the door, we encumber them with an endless stream of chicken regulations which make it clear that we remain convinced that they are out to get us. For instance, want a dollar’s worth of stamps in a hurry to get a customer letter out in a timely fashion? We presume that it’s for personal use, making the employee fill out a page-long form. Need a spare part to fix a broken machine? Fill out a two-page form, get three supervisors to sign it, and then pass through the double-locked door to the supply room.

How misplaced all this is. At a recent executive seminar, we devoted a day to sharing experiences. As usual, it was eye-opening and at times a tearjerker. One employee in a 250-person quarry operation had received a simple word of public praise from the president. The guy now is working like crazy. The new-found energy was readily explained by his brother: “He’s been working here 35 years. It’s the first time anybody’s bothered to say something positive about his work.” Another participant had just concluded a distinguished executive career, during which he habitually sent little notes of praise, called DWD, for Damned Well Done. Upon retirement, he reports with astonishment that person after person came up to him, reminiscing about a note he had sent 15 years ago.

Another batch of stories revealed groups of people let in on previously confidential information, given a piece of the action, getting an opportunity to contribute ideas. They’d sprung to life in a fashion that no one would have dared imagine.

Aren’t we all saying the same thing, customer and employee alike? Listen to us. Ask us to contribute. Don’t assume that we’re thieves, prevaricators, and drug abusers. Virtually none of us are. We’ll work like hell, we’ll walk through brick walls if you just say thanks once every decade or so and treat us with a modicum of dignity.

I suggest but one New Year’s resolution for 1987. Hold the Scotch tape! Treat your customers and your fellow employees like adults. You’ll be astounded at the “return on investment.” And you’ll be amazed at how good you feel as a human being.

(c) 1986 TPG Communications.

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