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A view from the other side of the counter

Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee By Alex Frankel Collins, $24.95, 240 pages

January 06, 2008|Jonathan Birchall | Financial Times

They must be slapping themselves on their backs at the Texas headquarters of Container Store Inc., retailer of boxes, shelves and other "storage solutions."

For when Alex Frankel, the author of "Punching In," tried to get a job at Container Store by posing as a storage fanatic, he failed to get past the first interview.

When it comes to staffing, Container Store -- which prides itself on the thoroughness and intensity of its training -- has decided to spend what it takes to get the committed storage fanatics it wants to interact with its customers.

It has some of the lowest turnover rates in the sector and famously good customer service.

For most mass retailers, however, the challenge is to find the right balance between costs and quality of service -- while remembering that their vast enterprises are ultimately at the mercy of the employees who face the customers.

But how do you motivate the staff -- the retailer's chief expense? And how do you prevent a surly employee from leaving a potential customer either indifferent or, worse, hostile?

Frankel's entertaining and well-written book offers some grass-roots insights. The business journalist decided to seek work at some of America's leading companies in customer service in an attempt to find out what works and what does not -- and why.

Container Store did not want him after a preliminary interview. At Home Depot Inc. and at Whole Foods Market Inc., he did not even get past an online questionnaire, apparently failing some kind of credibility algorithm in his attempts to answer a range of ethical and personal questions.

But luckily UPS Inc. needed seasonal workers in San Francisco, launching a project that then took Frankel into jobs at Starbucks Corp., Gap Inc. and Apple Inc., as well as a stint at Enterprise Rent-a-Car Co.

It is anecdotal but fascinating.

As they fight the Christmas rush, it becomes apparent that UPS' drivers are the core of its esprit de corps -- they serve as empowered noncommissioned officers who have risen through the ranks and pull it all together when things start to go bad.

Frankel gets minimal training before going out on his truck, but he is sucked into the corporate values by the drivers and feels guilty about taking a day off.

Starbucks, on the other hand, sounds more like a ship with a panicking crew in a storm of caramel-flavored Frappuccinos.

There are vast manuals of staff instruction but no time to read them. New employees learn largely on the job from any colleagues who are nice enough to help them, before being thrust in front of a queue of customers demanding ever-more-baroque confections.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the book is Enterprise, a company that has gained attention for its support of the "net promoter score"-based system for assessing how well it is doing with its customers.

The formula, developed with Bain & Co. consultant Fred Reichheld, relies on customers rating the company according to whether they would recommend the service to a friend.

But it turns out that Enterprise's well-trained workers, many of whom are recent college graduates, probably are more concerned about selling add-on insurance than they are about their scores.

Insurance is the main factor that determines whether or not they will rise through the ranks of what sounds like a parody of entrepreneurial culture, which preaches that everyone can succeed if they only try hard enough.

Clearly, Frankel did not buy it -- although it seemed to work with most of his colleagues, at least those who did not burn out and share their disgruntlement at www.failingenterprise.com.

There may be no great revelations about management training theory in this book, but it does lift the veil that conceals the other side of the counter. And in the unlikely event of armed hostilities ever breaking out between UPS and Starbucks, I know which side I would back.

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Jonathan Birchall is a New York-based correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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