Are You Satisfied?

Here’s something I wrote in 1997.


When I got into mischief as a child, my mother would always ask me if I was satisfied with myself for what I’d done. If it was something that caused my older brother some sort of agony or discomfort, my answer was usually, “Yes. Now we’re even.” However, I never spoke those words. I thought them… but had sense enough not to say them. As I grew older, my answer to the question changed. Instead of being satisfied, I was, more often than not, ashamed.

I’m sitting in a motel room in Bethel, Connecticut. I just got back from a grocery store. The experience of the trip got me to thinking about satisfaction.

Stew Leonard's Granite Carving

“Rule # 1: The customer is always right. Rule # 2: If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule # 1.” These words are carved in a massive granite boulder at the entrance of Stew Leonard’s in Danbury. Above the boulder is a huge sign announcing that Stew’s is the largest dairy store in the world. Because the words carved in the rock are true, I’m inclined to believe the other claim as well.

I first heard about this store, and its boulder, in the late 80’s. IBM was encouraging its employees to improve the quality of their products and services. The emphasis was on keeping the customers satisfied. Stew Leonard’s success was used as a model of what can be achieved by putting the customer first.

Shortly after Stew Leonard opened his business, so the story goes, a woman came to return a gallon of milk. She said it was sour. Stew took the milk from the patron, examined the date (which had long ago expired) and noted that most of the milk was gone. He asked the woman why she waited so long to return it.

She didn’t answer his question. Instead, she became irate and told him she would never shop in his store again. With that, she was gone and Stew was left holding the bottle.

Stew then asked himself a question. Was the cost of a gallon of milk worth losing a customer? His answer was a resounding “NO!” He vowed he would never lose another customer over something so trivial. He has kept that vow … and thousands of customers. The store has expanded several times and he built a second store in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Contract employment brought me to the Danbury area, and I had to see Stew’s emporium for myself. It is everything the IBM executives said it was. The closest thing to it, that I know of in Georgia, is Harry’s Farmers Market (today known as Whole Foods). But Stew’s is bigger and has a wider variety of products. As for the dairy store claim, they process and bottle milk right on the premises. (I looked for the cows, but didn’t see any.)

I mentioned “contract employment” because there is a definite connection. From 1966 until 1992, I was a full time employee. For the last five years, I’ve been a consultant working on a contractual basis. As a contractor, there’s a world of difference in my attitude. I’ve come to realize that my attitude prior to 1992 was wrong.

As a consultant, whoever I’m working for is my “customer.” My primary job is to keep that customer satisfied. As long as the customer is satisfied with my work, I keep working – and keep getting paid. One contract I had was for sixty days. The contract was terminated after eleven months. My customer apologized for having to let me go. Then he threw a “going away” party for me. He was quite satisfied.

There are times when a customer asks me to do things I consider a waste of time and money. I find such assignments boring and unimaginative. I think someone with less talent and experience could be found to do the meaningless tasks – and probably save the company some money. But before I get upset and say something I might regret, I remind myself that the customer is paying my bills. The customer is always right.

When these instances occur, I examine the situation and try to find a creative solution. If I can discover a task that allows my skills to be better utilized, I sit down and present my recommendations. More often than not, the customer appreciates my honesty and is happy to let me do things that are more productive and beneficial to both of us.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t react this way as a full-time employee. Like so many others, I’d gripe to my fellow workers, friends, and family members. Sometimes I’d even complain to my boss. Complaining isn’t bad if you can offer a solution, but a complaint by itself does nothing to endear you to the person in charge. In fact, it can get you in real hot water if your boss is feeling the same way about his or her job.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d look at my boss as my customer. I would bend over backwards to keep my manager satisfied with my work. If the boss gave me an assignment I didn’t like, I’d either find a better way to do it, or try to find, and suggest, a better use of my skills. Above all, I’d try to maintain a positive attitude and make sure the boss recognized that attitude. I would constantly remind myself that the boss is my number one customer and my primary job is to keep that person satisfied.

Mental attitude means so much in our lives. The late Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, liked to say, “You can’t teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you, and irritates the pig.”

When an idiot cuts me off in traffic, or a moron forgets to leave the pickles off my sandwich, I can get upset, and yell and scream. But if I think of that singing pig, I smile and see the minor inconvenience for what it really is – minor.

If the fools in our lives apologize and remedy the situation, we might feel better. More often than not, the fools get angry themselves. Then we get madder. It’s a vicious cycle. No winners. Lots of losers. However, if we think of the singing pigs, we can get through life’s irritating moments much more easily. We can take the pickles off the sandwich ourselves, and get on with more important matters.

Whether the dimwits we deal with are our employees or employers, we’re better off  if we maintain a positive outlook. Just consider everyone you encounter as a customer and remember, the customer is always right. If the customer orders a product you don’t carry (or would rather not sell), it’s your job to “sell” your customer something else or direct him to another establishment.

Let’s take it a step farther. Let’s see if this would work with family members.

Let’s say your spouse wants to do something that you don’t want to do. You could bluntly say so and get into a heated argument, or you could open up your sales kit and try selling an alternative solution. The solution may not totally replace the original idea, but it may make it less unpleasant for you. There’s nothing wrong with honestly stating why you are proposing something different. In fact, it’s important to let your spouse know your true feelings.

Just be sure you propose another option. Don’t simply refuse to consider your spouse’s desire. Find a compromise solution that will keep you both satisfied. Remember, your spouse is always right, but there’s no reason why you can’t be right also. The problems start when one or both parties are dissatisfied, and an attempt is made to prove that one or the other is wrong.

Talk is cheap and that’s exactly what it takes to resolve problems. Try to be calm as you describe your feelings about the subject and listen intently as your spouse does the same. Then, work together to arrive at a compromise.

The thing I find most interesting about trying to satisfy the people you deal with is that you find that you are very satisfied with yourself.


To learn more about Stew Leonard, click here.


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