Have you ever had to wait while a cashier or clerk finished a personal conversation before helping you? I'll bet you didn't like it. When I was managing a fairly busy fast food café in a large shopping center, my customers didn't like it either. Here is how I handled the situation.

The operation I ran was fairly busy but not terribly fancy -- definitely "fast food." Pretty standard: the customer wants a decent bite to eat in a fairly short time. No big mystery, just the basics.

Things for the most part went fairly well, but every now and then there would be a glitch of one sort or another. This was a decade or so before Tom Peters popularized the term "Management by Wandering Around" but it seemed pretty obvious to me that I had to see what was going on in order to do my job effectively.

One thing I noticed on one of my wanderings was one of the counter workers, a high school girl named Molly: though she seemed quite competent at the job itself, she had an annoying habit of talking to her friends at length, up to the point where she would actually keep customers waiting. The customers noticed as well, and it was obvious that they were none too happy about this.

I mentioned this to Molly the next time we talked. I kept it fairly light, hoping she'd take the hint and change her behavior so I could quit worrying about it. No such luck, so I mentioned it again. This time I was a little more direct about it. Again, nothing changed.

OK, time for something more substantial. I arranged to meet with Molly after her shift ended the next day.

"Here's the situation, Molly," I began. "I'm paid to keep this place running well, which means keeping the customers happy. The customers are happy when they can get the food they want fairly quickly so they can go on about their business as soon as possible. When they have to wait for their food they get unhappy."

I believe I mentioned that she could probably understand this by thinking of times she'd been out buying something and had to wait for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. Nobody likes to wait.

I went on to explain to Molly that, while most of what she did on the job she did quite well, there was one thing that was causing trouble with the customers; this of course was her habit of chatting with her friends and keeping the customers waiting.

"So, Molly, I hope you see where this leaves me - for the customers' sake, which means for the business' sake, I have to get this to change. I'm hoping you'll be willing to change this because I enjoy working with you and I think you're a great worker; but if you don't I'll have to replace you." I named what I thought was a reasonable length of time and explained that if the customers were still waiting because of her personal conversations when that time had passed that I would in fact let her go.

She didn't say much at this point; I think she was taken somewhat by surprise by the whole thing. By the time we were finished talking I had no idea whether any good at all was going to come out of the conversation.

Surprise! The next time I went down to see how Molly was doing, I was amazed -- she had totally changed her ways. Unlike before, she was genuinely paying attention to each and every customer, nice as could be to them in addition to getting their orders filled efficiently. Yes, I was definitely amazed.

We talked again after a week or so (I had to be sure that one day wasn't a fluke!) and I told her how glad I was to see her doing such a great job with the customers. She actually thanked me for having that earlier conversation with her... she said that she enjoyed the job a lot more now that she had made the change I'd requested.

Since then I've tried to figure out just why this worked out as well as it did. I was fairly young and pretty much going "by the seat of my pants" as the saying goes. I think there are a few factors that contributed to this success story:

  1. Molly was a teenager, rebellious, full of energy, and all that, but she was also essentially a decent person, meaning she hadn't been damaged beyond repair by the world yet. Another person without this basic decency could just as easily have ignored everything I said and headed on out the door. And nowadays, of course, maybe this person would've come back later with a .357 ....
  2. My approach was focused primarily on the situation, what was happening vs. what needed to happen, and why. I did mention Molly's behavior where necessary since that was the point of the conversation, but I didn't go overboard, didn't imply anything about her character, none of that. I kept it very neutral, very objective - and very definite. This has to change, and this is why.
  3. I came up with a reasonable request as well as a definite statement about consequences of complying or not complying, and a realisitic timetable. Years later I heard the phrase "Actions have consequences." This is an anxiety-diminishing statement since it indicates that we do have some control over our lives. I wasn't playing some capricious authority figure, making arbitrary decisions about Molly's life. I was simply explaining to her what the situation required of her - and why - and leaving it in her hands at that point. She apparently responded to the responsibility I placed in her.

Was I glad that this turned out as well as it did? Of course I was! And would I really have followed through and fired Molly if she hadn't changed her ways? Of course I would have! To not fire her under those circumstances would have been more of an insult than anything else. And I believe she realized that.

But lately I wonder, especially when I'm in a store and the clerk or cashier or whoever is more interested in their conversation than waiting on me - I wonder if anyone in their company knows how to tell a "Molly" story. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.