Cash Register Versus Customer



Outside the little town of Talcott, WV, is a large statue of John Henry. John was the steel-driving man who won a contest pitted against a steam-powered drill and then died from the stress of the match. His job was driving a spike into rock to create a hole for dynamite to be placed in order to create the Big Bend tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) around 1870. It was a man-versus-machine metaphor memorialized in poem and song.

When I think about John Henry, I am reminded of an incident at the local Lowe's. I went to purchase a single small copper fitting for a faucet extension. A very nice man helped me find the bin for three-fourth fittings with only one loose fitting left. The front of the bin had it priced at $1.99. I took it to the checkout counter and the cashier said, "I'll need an item number. Where is the package it came it?"  I explained it was the only one left and was loose in the bin with a price of $1.99.  Again, she refused to proceed without an item number.  

She called back to the plumbing department, and the man who waited on me came to her register and told her the price was $1.99 and that it was a single loose item without a package. Again she stonewalled, heatedly sending him back to get the item number from the front of the bin. He was gone a while. "Just charge me $5," I suggested. "I am in a big hurry and we are holding up this line of customers."  Then the steam-driven drill slammed into rock-hard reality.

The cashier replied, "The cash register will not let me ring up this copper fitting without an item number."

We live in a time flush with high efficiency, cost control, and lean operations. Not only has waste and expense been wrung out of most systems, too often so has the heart and soul of customer service. We seem to be getting longer on high-tech, but shorter on high-touch. The clerk was not the culprit in this man-versus-machine rematch. Bar-coded packaging drives inventory control, profit and loss (P&L) calculations, and all manner of financial management processes. And maximizing the clerk's productivity meant keeping her focused on the rules of the registry more than on the concerns of the customer.  

Were this a small hardware store, I might have gotten, "I'll check you out now and put the item number in later." But this was big business where an all-powerful cash register completely blocked this clerk’s ingenuity, empathy, and empowerment. So who ultimately wins this contest? There is a Home Depot a few miles away! But let's go deeper into the real misfortune behind this incident.

The "cash register as champ" system communicates to the clerk that the cash register is more important than she is. Coupled with her being within firing range of angry customers, she is easily beaten down by a scenario over which she has zero control. When I asked her whether this stalled situation made sense to her, she briskly replied, "Absolutely none whatsoever." Her answer told me she had little regard for the system she guided; her tone told me she had little regard for my patronage. But there is more.

When the salesperson who helped me told her the price and she demanded he get the item number off the bin, her tenor sounded like an angry mother sternly chastising a naughty child. Her colleague could have easily concluded she did not believe him. When he was gone so long, it struck me as a form of retaliation. And when he finally brought her the item number, there were no pleasantries exchanged. He did not smile; she did not thank him. Machine: one. Morale: zero.

And for the coup de grace: The entire scene played out in front of an audience of waiting customers. Some backed out of line to choose another one rather than wait for the item number to satiate the cash register and release the two of us from its unyielding grip. I later wondered why I did not just leave. But I sensed there were lessons to be learned from this $1.99 fiasco.

What is smart about customer service driven by the inviolable nature of a machine? The clerk might have been charged with the crime of a bad attitude. But I suspect behind her tough exterior was a personality charming enough to fool a recruiter. She might have missed customer service training. But knowing to focus on the person giving you the money that funds your salary is not a concept only learned in training.  

No. The culprit was the myopic view that failed to give this frontline ambassador the trust, respect, and capacity to ensure that whenever there was a John Henry-like contest, a healthy John would always win--right along with the customer.


Chip Bell is a keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books including The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service. His newest book is Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at www.chipbell.com.