7-Eleven’s Secret Weapon

Grant McCracken says there’s a revolution coming.

In his recent post on the HBR blog, he describes how he was recently transformed from “Major Grumpy-Pants” to a satisfied customer at his local Whole Foods. It wasn’t a happenstance encounter with one gregarious grocer; it was three, consistently upbeat interactions with genuinely engaging people that “charmed and disarmed.”

McCracken’s point is that retailers (and I would argue, businesses of every kind) must hire and support people like this in order to win in the 21st century.

In a recent episode of the popular CBS series Undercover Boss, the CEO of global convenience store behemoth 7-Eleven, Joe DePinto, recently learned the same lesson. He went undercover to see why his highest-performing location sells more coffee than any other in the world. What did he find?


McCracken describes Dolores well:

Dolores is no mere greeter. She’s there to make the coffee flow. And after 18 years here, she knows a lot of people by name. And if she doesn’t know your name, she is prepared to go with an endearment. (And who doesn’t want to be called “hon”?) Most astonishingly, she punches people. And she’s not asking for permission either. “I gotta hit ya,” we hear her say, “You know I gotta hit ya.”

Hitting customers. Now there’s a big idea.

I believe Dolores shows us that our conventional instincts are wrong. We offer the customer a glassy, scripted welcome. We craft our greetings as if the staff person were a butler, all frosty detachment and sangfroid. “Good afternoon, sir, may I help you find something?” There are options here. In some cases, it’s actually okay to hit the customer.

Dolores was a happy accident for 7-Eleven. She contributes to outstanding sales performance against five continents of store locations. Imagine what could happen if just 10% of employees at the customer level of your organization were recruited specifically to be Dolores. 20%? 90%?¬†Furthermore, imagine if you compensated the Dolores’ of your organization for the real value they represent.

After all, it would be a shame if she decided to work for the convenience store across the street…

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8 Responses to 7-Eleven’s Secret Weapon

  1. Patti Ross says:

    I do not regulary watch Undercover Boss, but I did see that episode. And Dolores is great! If a company or institution (I am in academia) would truly focus on being responsive and interactive with the customers/students, vast improvements could be seen. Much of the research on how to help students succeed is to help them connect with someone–and at times it is the janitor who shares a cup of coffee with the student who arrives at 7 am because that is the bus he can take to get to him class on time or the secretary who takes the time to say hello every morning and help the student realize what questions s/he needs to be asking. High touch (without any creepy connotations) is what is needed, even in our world of twitter and blogs and such. What improvements could be seen if there were a Dolores or two or three on every campus or in every store! It is the value of service and stewardship that needs to be a priority.

    • jkurth says:

      Thanks, Patti — I thought this was a great illustration of the way intangible, immeasurable contributions from people at the ‘bottom’ of an organization make all the difference. Organizations of any kind who recognize this and focus on breeding a culture of Doloreses will have an advantage over the competition.

    • Great blog…
      I’d go beyond saying “even in our world of twitter and blogs and such” and suggest it’s actually because of our world of twitter and blogs and such. There’s so little authentic contact these days that it really hits us hard when we encounter it.

      • jkurth says:

        Thanks for reading, Auburn Meadow Farm. I think you’re right to say that digital saturation is making retail interactions more crucial than ever before. When a consumer goes out of their way to visit a physical retail space, they’d better find something special and genuine there. If the service they receive is as faceless and transactional as a website anyway, they might just decide to shop from home next time, where the competition is only a click away.

        It’s all about competitive differentiation. After checking out your website, I see that Auburn Meadow Farm is powerfully and genuinely different. That’s no accident I’m sure. It means you have a story worth telling — keep up the good work!

  2. Good luck!

    I’m delighted you’re highlighting this issue…the retail world is in fact filled with Dolores, and it is my personal goal to find and celebrate them, and ensure that senior execs really “get” — and reward! — the value they add.

    But, for the most part, they do not. I am hearing almost daily from front-line associates echoing the messages in Malled, that they are undervalued, underpaid and consistently overlooked.

    I am 100% with you in this. How and when and why will the top people begin to care and make changes?

    • Jesse Kurth says:

      I knew this post was right up your alley, Caitlin. There are only a very select few large scale retailers who treat their front-line staff as a primary competitive differentiator (Starbucks, The Container Store, others?). Everyone else settles for mediocrity, and that’s exactly what they get.

      I can tell you exactly when retail execs will begin caring more about the people who handle their customers: when competitors start to beat their pants off. All it takes is a few enterprising entrepreneurs and CEO’s in each industry to lay the dinosaurs to rest. Lowes, for example, gobbled Home Depot’s market share by positioning themselves as DIY consultants/experts with great people in every retail outlet.

      Treating retail reps like the indispensable assets they are is just good business. And good business beats bad business every time.

  3. Thanks for the kind words.

    @Broadsideblog I’ve always felt that everyone as part of basic human training should have to be a front line employee for at least a year – no exceptions! Waitress, caddy, valet, barrista, airport employee and so on. If the memory of that doesn’t make you more empathetic and appreciative throughout the rest of your life, you’re scary.

    There’s a small restaurant in my town that I so admire. They make the most EXCELLENT pasta. They make three kinds of noodle and three kinds of sauce. You cannot mix and match – tomato leek comes with penne and penne only – do not ask for tomato leek on linguine.

    Also he keeps quirky hours and closes for a summer vacation every year plus he only takes cash. Do not try to use a debit or credit card.

    Place is packed all day, every day.

    My hero….

  4. And yet the drive for bottom line results takes most companies to the headcount reducing strategies. At the same time they are trying to design ways for the customer to serve themselves. Take Dolores out of that store, move her to another one nearby. Measure results at both stores over the time period. Analyze. Make better decisions.

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