In Practice

Ever wonder what makes magazines like Operations & Fulfillment flourish? Many things, we hope, but one of the reasons most trade publications stay in business is that their advice is rarely heeded, and bears trumpeting over and over again.

Take customer service, for example: After all the media brouhaha about how terrible it is, you’d think that retailers would have caught on. But in just one day, I was thrice subjected to service so mediocre that it confirmed merchants are way off the mark. At a large grocery store, the kid at the checkout counter didn’t know what a cabbage was, and held me up for ten minutes while she went to find someone who did. At an art supply retailer, four clerks huddled around a computer that they couldn’t operate, blithely ignoring the line snaking out the door. At a discount apparel store, the two lone service reps on the floor were practically cowering in the face of the hordes of shoppers thronging a post-holiday sale. Clearly, these companies didn’t know what was happening, and didn’t care, not only about customers but their own employees.

Which brings me to the real theme of this diatribe — the gap between what we say, or what we claim to be useful and good, and what we do. Ironically, the dot-coms were on to something when they treated their denizens to the good life. The cynical take on this is that they could afford to binge on catered lunches and foosball tables because they didn’t have to make a profit. But let’s think about that for a moment. If we were less obsessed with profit, maybe we could be better business people as well as better people.

In a recent book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, authors John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor point out that when you become a consumer, you isolate yourself from people, nature, and society. Perhaps the best way to spearhead a business recovery would be to go back to the community, as former Webvan exec Anthony Parks did when he gave away more than half his shares in the company to people who had helped him survive adversity.

The important lesson here is that Parks was a pragmatist; he also kept enough for himself to live comfortably. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out, what Parks did was “a throwback to a preindustrial world of two centuries ago, when there were no United Way campaigns, no private foundations with program officers, no mass mailings seeking tax-deductible contributions to organizations with postal box addresses. There were only people in trouble — and a handful of people prosperous enough to go door to door, sharing a little of their success.”

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