When I read the following quote from the book “Never Confuse a Memo with Reality — And Other Business Lessons Too Simple Not to Know” by Richard Moran, I thought about Gary Prickett, a favorite district manager.

Remember who pays the bills

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

“The true test of whether you (and your company) are customer-driven is how you set priorities. If the question ‘How will this affect customers?’ is always the first one asked, the chances are good the organization is customer driven.”

Gary oversaw about 20 stores in rural areas separated by hours of driving. As a produce supervisor in his district, I frequently traveled with him. Gary learned a little about produce, and I learned even more from him, not the least of which was how to treat customers. Specifically, how to look out for their needs, even when things get tough.

For example, nothing is more challenging to grocers (or customers), than going through a store remodel. You know how these go: Torn-up tiles, plastic sheeting and aisles rearranged while construction pushes on.

An ever-present, lone message on an easel in the front lobby apologizes: “Pardon our Dust.”

To Gary, this wasn’t enough. He had a sharp eye for how customers were affected. Were the shopping carts inaccessible because a power cord was in the way? He’d make sure someone moved it.

“I don’t want a single customer inconvenienced by this remodel,” Gary emphasized to employees in meetings or as he encountered them in the store.

Of course, customers were inconvenienced. How could they not be, with jackhammers pounding away and a third of the parking lot fenced off for Dumpsters or equipment?

To Gary, it was all about identifying problems and minimizing obstacles, even if it meant higher labor costs. For example, instead of having pallets of merchandise block an aisle he made sure clerks broke the goods down onto smaller stocking carts, allowing customers to navigate easier through the store.

Gary made it a point to talk with customers.

“Finding everything OK?” he’d ask.

And he wasn’t just going through the motions, either. If capers were moved overnight, Gary wouldn’t quit until a clerk found the elusive item for the customer.

He made sure when we closed the store for a few days, and removed merchandise, that not even the last customer was rushed or herded out of the store.

“Never forget that these people pay our bills,” Gary reminded us.

Most produce field supervisors or district managers would welcome a call from a produce manager to do a ride-along. It’s good company for them as they travel, and a department manager can gain all sorts of insights on the business.

As I did with Gary. He’s retired now — I sure appreciated our time together, and wish him well.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net.

What valuable lessons have you learned from managers you've worked with? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.