The on-line system told us it was too late to order. We checked with the Honey Baked Ham store near us on Friday and they told us to come early on Saturday. Their allocations were limited. I drove Colleen to the store first thing, fired up my Keener radio station in the car and waited for her to return with the golden foil wrapped Detroit treat.
What I saw was an angry face, frustrated beyond measure. She was told that the store learned, after closing, that they didn’t have enough product to handle walk-ins. We could drive to the beach or the downtown location and take our chances there, but that there was no guarantee we would get what we wanted.
First choice. Since our weekend plans were in flux, we didn’t order early, like we always did. That opened us up to the possibility that inventory might not meet demand.
In the days before overbooking, I held the company record for talking my way into a free first class upgrade on airplanes. It was all about attitude.
“Stay here,” I told her.
Choice two: Keep my Queen in a place where she could calm down.
I went in the store and approached the air traffic controller who was asking folks if they had pre-orders. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We learned after closing that what we were telling customers differed from what we were ultimately able deliver.” She handed me a post-it with the addresses of the two other locations.
“I bet you’ve had a lot of practice with anger management and de-escalation,” I said. “I’m sorry you have to deal with so many unhappy people.”
She grinned at me. “I’ve been doing customer service for thirty-six years. You learn they aren’t mad at you. They are mad at the company. It’s my job to show empathy and see how I can help.”
Choice three: She separated her self-image from the job they paid her to do. That empowered her to be a better customer servant.
We talked about the business and her life for a few more minutes. Then I asked if I could talk with the manager.
Choice four: Positively escalate. If the person you are working with can’t help you, find someone who can.
My new friend disappeared for a few moments and a frazzled woman in a Honey Baked Ham t-shirt stood on the other side of the counter, eyeing me warily.
I smiled through my mask, hoping my eyes transmitted compassion. “I just wanted to thank you and tell you how sorry I am that you have to deal with this situation,” I said.
Choice five: I chose to respond with kindness; not at all what was expected.
“This is really our fault,” I continued. “We’ve been ordering Honey Baked Hams since we were kids living in Michigan. I wanted to tell you that your team member is handling this thing like a total pro.”
The manager’s relief was palpable. She unloaded a flood of apologies and explained how pandemic has blown demand out of the water. Business was so good that supply simply couldn’t keep up.
“Thanks so much for giving us some choices,” I said, when she stopped to take a breath. “Do you think there’s a risk that we might get there and they have run out of hams, too?”
Choice six: Clarify. Colleen would have melted down if we drove to the beach and didn’t come back with a ham.
The manager thought for a moment. The hint of a smile crossed her face. “Hold on a sec.”
She disappeared into the back, returning about five minutes later, cell phone in hand. “I’ve got four full hams left that I could sell you. If you want something smaller, I have my nephew, who runs the Beaches location on the phone. He’s got one and will hold it for you if you want.”
By now, Colleen was back in the store. She apologized to the woman up front, and they were laughing and talking about grandchildren.
Choice seven: Reboot the relationship. You can always start again from the beginning.
I thanked the manager and told her we would run to the beach as fast as possible so her nephew didn’t have to worry about some crazy customer rattling cages and then not showing up. The manager gave me a knowing nod. People do those things.
Choice eight: Show empathy and gratitude. Honey is sweeter than vinegar.
I heard her telling her nephew that he should hold us a ham. “These are my friends. I don’t want to let them down again.”
Colleen and I thanked her profusely and pointed the Subaru toward the beach. Fifteen minutes later, we were breaking the foil and snacking on Honey Baked Ham on our way home. I took a shot of the scrambled eggs with spinach, fruit salad and ham that my wife whipped up and put it on the cover of a Postable card, mailing it to the manager with our thanks.
Choice nine: Do a little more than is expected. Our world today seems to be too transactional. The sad maxim that our value to others is in direct proportion to what we can do for them always applies. Appreciation is part of the value proposition. She won’t forget us.
Choices like these confront us every day. The attitude we bring to the table always determines the outcome. During my corporate years, I tried to teach my teams to ask two questions: “Where does it hurt?” and “How can I help?” We made lots of money, calmed a ton of angry people, and won dozens of friends with those two sentences.
With pandemic delaying or canceling so many traditions, it’s easy to place blame and throw flames. Don’t do it. Make the choice to be part of the solution. Think creatively about new traditions that can fit within our temporary restrictions. Assume that good things can evolve out of unpleasant situations, but don’t get attached to specific outcomes. Roll with the punches and choose to stay positive.
This pandemic may or may not recede. It’s our generation’s opportunity to choose to show what we’re made of.
As the knight in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” admonishes: “Choose wisely.”