Some of the best lessons learned are those we didn’t know we were teaching. I am unsure where I first heard that, but I know I did not make it up….I am not that insightful. A few years ago I mentioned to my dad that many of the best practices I have developed while working for others and in my own business originated from lessons he taught me as a kid. He was very surprised because he was totally unaware that what I observed and heard from him was of value. Before I go into more detail, some back story is necessary. My dad owned and operated a retail shoe store and a shoe repair shop. He was a high school dropout due to difficult family situations and joined the Air Force. Soon after returning from Scotland and leaving the military, he started working in the small family business and soon thereafter bought out my grandfather and became the sole proprietor of Davis Shoe Shop.
When I was 8 I began working at the store after school and on most Saturdays. Initially I dumped the trash, swept the sidewalk and did basic cleaning. It was not long before I started learning the cobbler trade and getting my feet wet in retail sales. I had watched my dad deal with customers and that is the model I followed. My first affirmation in sales was from a gentleman who was going to work on the Alaska Pipeline and I sold him 2 pair of insulated boots. He told my dad I was the best salesman he had seen. What a lift for an 8 year old. I had no other job until I was 18. Well, I did have some side summer jobs like baling hay, planting pine trees and picking tomatoes. Okay, now for the lessons I learned.
My dad worked a lot of hours. Although our store hours were 8-5 (8-6 on Saturday), if a customer needed something outside of those hours, the door stayed open. You would never see someone standing on the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open at 8…..we let them in. You would never see anyone shoved out the door or told we were closing in 10 minutes….we let them stay. In fact, we were not allowed to start cleaning, vacuuming or sweeping in site of the customer. My dad never wanted the customer to get the impression we wanted them to leave.
He had a mantra that was drilled in to me early in my retail career. He would say “When somebody comes through the door you are not doing them a favor by trying to sell them something. They are doing you a favor by doing business with us, so treat them that way”. That philosophy is so engrained that I do not hesitate to pass it along to a frustrated employee in retail where I am shopping. My kids get embarrassed, but I figure it is an incredibly beneficial idea to share.
The system in the shop was pretty simple. When a pair of shoes came in for repair, we would determine a realistic time frame in which the repair could be completed. Dad started practicing the “under promise, over deliver” a long time before I read it in a business book. Since we were open six days a week, we had 6 large cardboard boxes labeled Monday, Tuesday, etc. Naturally, the shoe was placed in the box on the day promised to the customer. The exception, and thus the lesson, was rush jobs. If someone needed it more urgently than our workload allowed, dad would promise it early if they paid in advance. Once that was done and a day was selected for customer pickup, the shoes were placed in the box the day before the promised day. We set ourselves up to be early and not late with the repair.
Paying up front for rush and urgent repairs was a great lesson in financial management. His policy was that for any guaranteed repair, we always collected the charge first. Another important financial lesson was about personal responsibility. I still remember the first time he gave me $5 and told me to go the hardware store and buy a screwdriver. Before I left he told me to make sure to bring back a receipt. When I returned I asked why he wanted a receipt and he told me that he expected 3 things when I returned…the screwdriver, his change and a receipt. He further explained that one day it would not be his money I would be responsible for managing. I needed to be accountable for every cent of someone else’s money. That lesson learned was evident in my first job out of college when I was sent to a weeklong management training program at Purdue University. When I returned I was completing my expense report when one of the company directors passed by and asked me why I was including receipts because no one else did. The question left me with the impression he and others were stealing from the company by submitting bogus expenses. Sadly, I have seen the same scene played out over and over in my years working for and with companies. Thanks dad for the ethical and moral lesson you taught me at an early age.
My dad was always the kind of man who would return something he borrowed in better shape than it was before. For instance, if he had to borrow a truck to haul a large item, the truck was returned washed and with a full tank of gas. If by some error, the borrowed item was broken, he would fix it or replace it. In the shop, he was just as serious. I recall the first time he taught me this lesson. When shoes were repaired, we would put the finished items in a paper bag, attach the ticket and put in a bin that was organized by ticket number. I remember him stopping me as I was putting a pair of shoes in the bag and he encouraged me to take a closer look at my work. He then said that it was crucial that I understand the importance of what I was doing. When a customer came to pick up their repair and take it home, I couldn’t follow them home and then explain in detail what I did to fix their shoes. All I could control was the quality of the work the customer sees when they get home and take the shoes out of the bag. He stated emphatically, “so, always do your best job”.
Each of us has stories of lessons we learned from a relative, a friend or someone in business. The secret is to take that lesson and apply it in a positive way in business and in life. You never know when you will find out that someone learned something from you when you didn’t know you were teaching. I could go on and on about lessons my dad taught me on integrity, dedication, responsibility, empowerment, etc., but I’ll save that for my book…one of these days!
To your success!