“Ma’am, if you’re patient, Larry will see you,” Mike said calmly into the phone, the knuckles gripping the handset white with aggravation.
“Ma’am, please. Larry has a busy day and will be trying to help every–ma’am, if you’d just–” He held the receiver away from his face, took a breath and sighed. The warbling chatter of a Charlie Brown adult wahed out of the microphone.
I felt for Mike. How many times had I been trapped on a phone line with an irate customer who simply couldn’t understand why they weren’t treated with more import than every other customer. “The customer is always right,” they would shout at me, my patience wearing thin. “It’s a service industry, so provide a fucking service,” one man once barked. I could feel their echoes slowly emanating outward from the phone, the woman’s voice shrill and tinny.
“Ma’am, Larry has appointments all day. We’re going to do our best to fix the problem, but I can’t promise a one on one with him.”
I turned my attention away from the conversation in an attempt to not eavesdrop or pry any more than I already had.
Larry’s Boot Fitting has an excellent reputation among serious skiers. Larry himself is almost a mythical figure, though you’d hardly be able to tell from looking at him. He carries himself with a sly ease, his unkempt good looks belying a youthful exuberance for the art of skiing. Rumors say that if you show up at his store on a slow afternoon with a six pack of a good local microbrew, Larry will crack a couple cold ones and regale you with tales of awe-inspiring snow dreams and powdered daring-do.
The shop itself isn’t large. The main room has a couple benches, a single wall of boots, a small TV constantly rotating through ski videos and corner dedicated to skis and bindings. Around the corner in the second room are a couple more benches, the telemark boots and a doorway that leads to the back. The entire place is barely the size of a small apartment, which makes the quality of service and the large contingent of loyal clientele that much more impressive.
“People just don’t seem to get it sometimes,” Mike sighed, as much to the room as to me. “Sometimes I just want to tell people, ‘We’ll refund your money, thank you. Click.'” Several people smile and snicker, all of us party to the 20 minute marathon with the irate caller. “I mean, seriously. We’re doing our best and you’re going to get what you want if you just have a little patience.”
Given the way Mike has dealt with me and the other customers, it’s clear he loves working here. I would love it too. It’s a small business with a contingent of dedicated people who love what they do. They take pride in their product, their service and their reputation, and it shows.
It’s hard being a small successful business like that. Everyone wants the name on the sign. Everyone wants one on one time with Larry. But there’s only so much time in the day and only so many people he can see.
When a customer comes in and says they only want to deal with the man himself, it’s both a sign of respect and a bit of an insult. Mike and the other employees were hired by Larry, chosen for their skills and personalities and trained in the art of bootfitting. Each and every one of them is a representation of the business and customers should understand that. Being served by someone other than Larry still means you’re getting excellent service and the right fit, which is ultimately what matters and why Larry’s Boot Fitting has that reputation.
Every business I’ve worked for has tried to instill this sense of communal work ethic. Every one has tried to turn its employees into a singular driving force. If you examine the word “company” it stands not only for a business, but for a collective, a band of brothers, a group of people offering comfort and togetherness, and a fellowship or association.
Most of the businesses I’ve worked for have failed at this task.
It’s not easy instilling a oneness, especially in America. We’re pushed so hard to be individuals that relinquishing this for the good of the company is antithetical to our nature. Still, it makes good business sense, and, more than that, it brings everyone’s quality of work up to a certain standard worthy of the name.
How a company reaches this state is unclear. Part of it has to be in the choice of employees. Part of it is having a hands-on approach from top to bottom, which is why major corporations which grew out of successful businesses often lack that sense. Part of it must be finding ways to make the work enjoyable, challenging and rewarding.
Larry’s Boot Fitting is an excellent example of a business that has cultivated this sense of pride and togetherness. I simply can’t say enough good things about the way I was treated and the service I received. I can only hope that Larry’s customers realize that they should treat Larry’s Boot Fitting and all its employees with the same grace, quality, and kindness they receive there.