What I Learned as a Radio Shack Store Manager

In the fall of 1986 I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa. With a B.A. in Spanish, and having taken some courses in computer science, I wasn’t sure what my job prospects would be. My girlfriend at the time graduated a semester earlier than I, and had already moved to the San Francisco Bay area where we planned to live.

In December, shortly after graduating, I decided to start job hunting in California. At that time, the job market was tough, and finding something wouldn’t be easy. I had the disadvantage of not being there, and was without any connections in the area.

I looked at the job listings for the area. “Where to begin?” I thought, looking at the various positions available. In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do. Instead of taking what was available, Based on my own interests, I’d choose what business I wanted to work for and then see if they would hire me — even if no job openings existed. This was a strategy that worked for me on several occasions.

Back in 1979, about 7 years earlier, I was in 9th grade, and Radio Shack began selling the Tandy TRS-80 Model I computer. I’d always had an interest in audio systems and electronics, so I’d spend a lot of time at the Radio Shack stores learning about the latest gadgets, tools, and supplies. With computers now available in the store, I began spending a considerable amount of time there, writing software programs on the store computer. Before too long, I knew the store and products fairly well. I got to be a ‘regular’ in the store, and would sometimes help customers. I enjoyed engaging with customers and finding solutions to their needs.

Reflecting on this experience, I decided to see if I could get a job with Radio Shack in San Francisco. I called a store in the area to get the name and phone number of the district manager (the DM). His name was Steve. We ended up talking on the phone, and when he found out I was fluent in Spanish, had computer skills, and was from Iowa, he hired me over the phone to begin immediately — in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Mr. Nguyen, the manager of the store where I first worked, was from Vietnam. I was an assistant manager with hopes of having my own store one day.

Mr. Nguyen was an excellent manager to train under, and we had a really good team at the store. At that time, just about everyone worked on commission. Any tasks not related to making sales, became less of a priority. Cleaning the store, receiving orders, putting merchandise on the shelves, and helping customers with returns or repairs were less desirable tasks since employees weren’t rewarded for these tasks.

As an assistant manager, I was often left managing the store on my own. I decided to create multiple ‘departments’ in the store. So, when a customer needed repairs, rather than being left sniffing their underarms wondering why all the sales people were avoiding them, I’d immediately greet the customer saying, “Welcome! Let me have you work with Bob in our repairs department.”

There was a measure of absurdity in my assertion that we had departments in the store. Radio Shack isn’t JC Penny or Sears, but I wanted to step it up a notch. So, we had a ‘receiving department’ and a ‘custodial department.’ By giving employees accountability over each area, rather than trying to avoid tasks, they took ownership of them.

Based on how well they were doing in their respective areas of responsibility (those tasks with no commission or reward), I would make sure each employee was compensated. I’d wait until I had helped a customer with a huge sale, like a computer or home entertainment system, and then I’d ask Bob to complete the order. That meant Bob, our ‘repairs manager’ would get the commissions for that order.

I wasn’t too concerned about losing income. With so much experience in Radio Shack stores, I’d become a kind of Dancing Wu Li Master of sales. I had memorized every product in the store, and knew the catalog cover to cover. As if by magic, the pages would open to the product I was looking for.

Radio Shack had a training program called the 15 steps to selling. It was quite good, and done right actually could be an effective way to meet people’s needs without selling them stuff they didn’t need. Several of us decided not to focus on maximum sales (and income) but to focus instead on meeting people’s needs, and letting income take care of itself. This approach worked and people flocked to our store.

When a customer would walk in the door, they would begin saying something like, “Do you have…” or “I’m looking for…” and I would cut them off mid sentence and say, “Yes, we have that.” It was mostly for theatrics. Perplexed, they’d continue explaining their need as I gestured them to follow me. Listening to them closely, I’d navigate to the place in the store where we needed to be so that by the time they finished talking, I’d be standing in front of the very product they were looking for, and with a game show host hand gesture, present the item to them.

Occasionally my little stunt would backfire, and the customer would describe something we didn’t have the the store. The other sales people would look on, thinking, “What’s he going to do now?” I was determined to help everyone that came in the door. Sometimes it meant creating a solution by combining adapters and cables to do what the person wanted to do. On one occasion, I had to purchase a soldering kit to solve a customer’s need.

Because sales and commissions weren’t our first priority, and helping the customer was our focus, it didn’t matter how small the item was, or how long it might take to help the customer.

There was a rare occasion when we actually didn’t have what they were looking for. We’d never say, “We don’t have that. Sorry.” Instead, we’d get on the phone and find it for them.

I enjoyed the selling process, and finding just the right product for people. Sometimes we’d be out of a product. “We have just what you need,” I’d say confidently walking toward the display area. Then I’d wave my hand presenting the empty space on the shelf, “What you need is the XB500,” and with much enthusiasm I’d begin to describe all the features the XB500 had to offer. “I’ll buy it!” the customer would say. The entire sales process would transpire without a product. As a neighborhood store, people were happy to stop back a day or two later for items that needed to be ordered.

To make the job a little more fun, we’d use some hackneyed sales techniques and phrases, with exaggerated delivery of lines — like something out of a 1950s television commercial.

The District Manager would stop in and visit us regularly. So, he saw many of these antics, but acknowledge that although our approach was unconventional, it was effective.

Working with Radio Shack, normally it takes two or three years to get into your own store. The training process is lengthy, and a store needs to be available. Within about six months, I was promoted to manager and given my own store in Daly City.

It was a very narrow store with two levels, and not an ideal location. Next door was Matthew’s electronics and entertainment megastore. Inside the store, customers would be given wine and cheese, along with other hors d’oeuvres. Anyone purchasing a television or stereo system would be given a fully assembled bicycle. Matthew’s had a huge advertising budget, and their television commercials from the 1980s can still be found on YouTube.

One day I visited their store. “We’re not in the Mission District anymore,” I thought to myself as I looked around at one of the most impressive displays of electronics I’d ever seen.

“How could I compete with these guys?” I thought.

I saw this as a challenge and growing opportunity. As a teenager, I worked at my mom’s family business an learned a lot of good lessons about hard work and customer service. My mom and step-dad were two of the most successful business people I’ve known — measuring success by how well we care for and serve others. I knew if I could focus on meeting people’s needs, I’d do just fine managing my own store.

Matthew’s brought in customers from around the area who wanted to benefit from their selection and low prices. Sometimes the line would go out the door. Those who were impatient would visit my store instead.

Occasionally I’d get customers in my store because Matthew’s didn’t have what they were looking for. Sometimes I’d replied customer, “Yes, they have that. It’s near the speakers in the back on the right.” I’d memorized their product line and the location of all their merchandise, so sometimes I knew how to find items that newer sales people might not have known about. In these situations, I’d look to my employees and say, “I’ll be right back.” I’d then take the person over to Matthew’s and help them find what they were looking for — all while wearing my Radio Shack Store Manager name tag. The guys at Matthew’s found this quite entertaining. It helped defuse any competitive spirit between our stores. Eventually I had Matthew’s sending me their customers.

Whenever I didn’t have a product someone was looking for, I would continue the sale next door at Matthew’s.

A challenge for my little store was that to get to it from any distance, a person would drive by a dozen other Radio Shack stores. So, to broaden my store’s customer base, I had to do something extraordinary. Over time, word got around and people knew they could get an extra measure of service at our store. We’d get people from as far away as Oakland who would come to have their technical problems solved.

On one occasion, an elderly woman came into my store in search of a phonograph needle that would play 33 and 78 rpm records. Sometimes finding the right needle for a record player would take some effort. It wasn’t always clear what needle would fit. I’d maintained the policy of putting customer needs above commissions, so I wasn’t concerned that this $1 sale might take considerable time. At that moment, I’d be earning about 15 cents per hour. It didn’t matter. I patiently helped this woman, who was very grateful. In fact, she was so grateful that she wrote a letter to Tandy Corporation Headquarters in Texas. That letter got back to my District Manager.

That was a highlight of my career with Radio Shack, and a good way to start off my professional life as a young adult.

I still think back on everything I learned through these various experiences and try to apply those lessons today.

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Centralized and Distributed Support Models in Service Industries

Introduction

In service industries, centralized or distributed support models both have benefits and drawbacks. This document explores what these benefits and drawbacks are. Although there are people with strong opinions about which model is better, as you’ll read here, there are different benefits to both systems, and when implemented properly, those benefits can be achieved. When either system is implemented poorly, outcomes suffer. As explained below, a hybrid model is also possible that can achieve many of the benefits of both approaches.

Centralized Support Overview

Service industries generally operate from a centralized model, especially within larger organizations and companies. The Best Buy Geek Squad would be an example of this. For many businesses, instead of having an in-house specialist to provide support, they call to get help or have something fixed, and a person comes to fix it. For those working in these kinds of service industries, the center of community, friendship, and camaraderie is within the community of support providers at their central office. When the Best Buy Geek Squad comes out to setup your new television, they don’t stay for dinner.

In-House Support Overview

The alternative to centralization is to have a full-time on-site in-house support person. When small businesses grow to a certain size, they reach the point where hiring a person full time can be less expensive than paying higher hourly rates to have a consultant to come in occasionally or part-time. Larger organizations and businesses may have many support people on staff who are spread around in the areas where they are needed for easier access. In this business model, the support people may feel a greater sense of belonging, community, and camaraderie with the people they are serving. Knowing more about those we serve, helps us serve them better, this combined with greater accessibility, creates opportunities for preventative and proactive approaches.

Benefits of Centralization

There are a number of benefits to having a centralized service model:

  • Scalable. With a centralized team of support people, it’s possible to respond to just about any need with just the right amount of support.
  • Specialized. Specialists in the team, with much more experience than a generalist, can deliver higher quality support as needed — shared across multiple units.
  • Better Tools. When specialized repair tools and resources are shared, they can be of higher quality and more variety.
  • Collaborative. A central team of support specialists are more likely to build collaborative and supportive relationships.
  • Standardized. When people are working together as a team, it’s easier to arrive at and implement standard practices.
  • Load Balanced. Having cross training and redundancy of support personnel ensures users get support even if someone is on vacation or sick. It’s also less stressful for an employee who knows that they can take time off without it impacting their work negatively.

Overall, the outcome of a centralized service model should be a higher quality of support and a greater quantity of support. In the long-term, it should be better for all people involved. A win-win situation.

Benefits of Distributed Support

Here are some of the benefits of distributed support:

  • Integrative. There’s a significant team-building and unifying benefit from having all employees working together having an opportunity to collectively experience shared successes. When support staff have a home among those they support, and have a sense of belonging, they can work more smoothly as a team.
  • Immediate. Being more easily accessible, support people who are close to those they are serving will be utilized more. Even the simplest elevator conversation can lead to a breakthrough in efficiency.
  • Trust Building. Being part of the community they serve, support specialists are more trusted. Trust includes believing that you can rely on someone, and that you believe in their level of competency.
  • Engaging. When service and support employees are daily working side-by-side with the people they are supporting, they can make sure people are aware of and utilizing best practices and following established standards and policies.

An Analogy to Cluster Storage and Computing

Anyone who has had their files stored on different hard drives knows that each drive will inevitably have free space left on it, sometimes a lot of unused free space.

A RAID file system allows you to combine many different hard drives into what the computer perceives is a single large drive. Previously unused space on many different drives is combined and available for use rather than scattered around.

Cluster Computing and Network File Storage systems provide this same efficiency. Technology is centrally located, and utilized by a large group of people, significantly reducing the otherwise unused drive space and underutilized computing power that might have been scattered around throughout an organization.

Well, the same principles of efficiency are present with human capital management strategies for service industries. Centralized service delivery models create a cluster of people in one location who can be called out on demand as needed, rather than being spread around an organization.

Fluctuations in Support Needs

When support people are distributed, they will likely experience the inevitable fluctuation of workload and support needs from one day to the next.

In service industries, it’s unlikely that workers will each individually have precisely 40 hours of work to accomplish in a given week if they are supporting a specific group of users.

From week to week, the support needs change. Usually what happens is that support people put in more hours to keep up, and sometimes quality suffers.

A Lesson From Urban Planning

For several decades, municipalities have struggled with a planning model that was largely dependent upon automobile ownership and use.

Rather than having walkable communities with mixed use urban spaces, cities have been designed to have shopping malls on one side of town, an industrial park on the opposite side of the city, a business park might be on the outskirts of town, with suburbs and sprawl were situated elsewhere. The downtown would be mostly office buildings. In none of these places were there opportunities or venues where community could be built.

New urbanism and walkable communities are designed so that people might live, work, shop, eat, and socialize all within the same neighborhood or downtown area.

With this in mind, we can think about service delivery models. A centralized service delivery model has all employees checking in at a central office and going out to deliver services as needed. Not as many opportunities exist for building collaborative relationships with those being served.

A distributed service delivery model is like new urbanism and walkable communities. From day-to-day, service people share the same office space and facilities as those they serve. Relationships are more easily established. The working conditions are such that collaboration is fostered and less of an effort.

In some office environments, people serving different roles work in the same proximity: graphic designers, sales staff, marketing, office managers, receptionists, secretaries, and tech support staff. This helps build relationships and provides easy access between different team members.

Imagine separating out one group of employees based on their role, and not allowing them to interact socially with the rest of those in the organization or company. Rather than feeling like they are part of the bigger team of employees they serve, they’d likely feel removed and possibly less valued.

A Lesson From Permaculture

In the midwest agricultural states, it’s common to have thousands of acres dedicated individual crops like corn or soybeans.  In a permaculture model, food and other vegetation is grown strategically together to create a self-maintained habitat.

Huge cubicle farms of employees grouped together by specialty reflect a monoculture model rather than a permaculture model. Rather than building small diversified workplace community centers, cubicle farms are focused on workplace efficiency.

The Intersection of Arts and Sciences

There’s been a lot of talk about interdisciplinary collaborative efforts. A liberal arts and sciences environment is based on the idea that a diversity of academic disciplines, when interwoven, can create an environment that fosters creativity and innovation. A blended workplace community of employees creates an opportunity for interdisciplinary partnerships.

A Lesson from Healthcare

In the traditional approach to healthcare, you visit your doctor once a year, and get an annual physical. The doctor visit may last 10 to 15 minutes — just long enough to get vitals, check ears, check throat, and listen to the heart and lungs. No exploratory lab work is done unless some symptoms have manifested that suggest further exploration is needed.

Only when there’s acute pain or an injury do we visit the hospital outside of our regular annual physical / checkup. As a result, many life threatening conditions and illnesses fester underneath the surface. By the time they are identifiable as symptoms, it’s too late to prevent them.

In the new model of healthcare, visits to the doctor are more regular and may last 60 to 90 minutes. The healthcare provider learns about your home life, work life, diet, exercise routine, sleep, and other factors that impact health. Extensive lab work is done to identify indicators of potential health problems on the horizon. This approach to healthcare seems to take more effort, yet in the long run can help prevent very costly surgery and life threatening illnesses that are all preventable. Because of the relationship established between doctor and patient, it’s more likely that the doctor can encourage, equip, and inspire the patient to make life changing life choices and changes in diet and exercise.

If we we take this approach to service industries, we will find that problems are less severe, less frequent, and cost less to fix in the long run.

Hybrid Solution

A hybrid model of service delivery would call for centralized administration and oversight of support staff, but support staff would have their offices mixed in with those they are supporting. An effort would be made to maximize ‘time in the field’ and reduce time in meetings and conferences. This support model provides benefits of both centralized and distributed support. Employees would report to the administrative members within the group they support, and also report to their central office management.

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