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The Official Baldrige Blog

Caveat Emptor. The "Mudgeon" Rides Again!

Rosemary plants for sale.
Credit: Harry Hertz

I was in the middle of writing a blog on leadership lessons from this season's professional baseball rule changes (watch for it in the future) when I had to take a break and run a few errands. One of the errands was a stop at the local, big-box, hardware store and garden center. I was there to buy some herbs for our herb garden.

I will start from the very beginning. I fancy myself the Baldrige Cheermudgeon because I am generally a cheerleader for the Baldrige Excellence Framework® and the concepts embodied therein. However, based on an occasional customer experience, I become the Curmudgeon. Well today's experience so infuriated me that the "mudgeon" rides again.

The Garden Center Purchase

I selected the herbs to add to the perennials already starting to grow in my herb garden. I went to the garden center's cash register and paid. The register receipt seemed to be higher than I expected. The difference was $2, not a lot of money, but the rosemary was more than 50% higher than the posted price. It was posted as $3.78, and I was charged $5.78. I told the cashier, and she said I would have to go to the customer service counter inside. She suggested I first go back to the herb aisle and take a picture of the posted price. I did that (noting that there were multiple pallets of rosemary, all marked $3.78) and then proceeded inside to customer service, already a little annoyed that the cashier was not empowered to serve the customer.

The Customer Service Experience

I explained the problem to the customer service cashier and showed her the picture. Her answer was that it rang up $5.78, so that is the price. I said, "It is marked $3.78 so that should be the price until you change the sign." She told me she needed to get the customer service manager. The customer service manager arrived (after about a five-minute wait), rescanned the rosemary, and confirmed that the price was $5.78. I showed the manager my picture and said all the rosemary was marked $3.78. 

The customer service manager then proceeded to tell me that the scanned price is the price I must pay; I was told suppliers frequently put the price on the pallets and those are not always the store's price. (Note all the other herbs I bought had the correct price and the same format price tags as the rosemary.)

Now, my concern was no longer about the $2 but, rather, the treatment of customers. I asked where the sign was that said, "Ignore marked prices; our prices may be higher." When I got the body language I expected, I asked for a piece of paper and marker, so I could post a sign. (I admit that was not good form on my part.)

After receiving another dirty look, I was told we would have to go back to the garden center to get that manager's approval. We went back and the garden center manager was not in sight. I was told to wait while the customer service manager searched for the garden center manager. After waiting ten minutes, I was sure that this was all a ploy to just get me to leave. My time was worth more than $2. But my principles (darn Baldrige) kept me on the spot.

The Resolution

Shortly thereafter, the customer service manager returned alone and said just this once they would refund the difference. I was marched back to the customer service desk and then had to await electronic register approval from yet another manager for the refund. The total elapsed time for a simple purchase was now over 30 minutes.

So, now you might ask, was there an apology? No. Was there any sort of thank you? No. Was there a dirty look as I left? Certainly, yes.

I am tempted to go back to the store and see if the price on the pallets has been changed. But you and I know the answer. Why get infuriated all over again?

The Analysis

It is said that when President Abraham Lincoln was really upset with a subordinate, he would disengage, write a letter expressing his dissatisfaction, then tear it up and re-engage the next day when his anger had subsided.

I do not tend to yell, and I believe that customer experiences frequently need to be dealt with at the time and point of transaction. I do feel a lot better having come home and immediately written this blog. I am totally calm now. I even laughed as I recounted my paper and marker request!

I felt sorry for the initial cashier who was not sufficiently trusted to be empowered to make it right for the customer. I tend to think the customer service cashier and manager were empowered. That led me to wonder how they are treated as employees. What leads to customer belligerence on an employee's part? People don't generally enjoy confrontation and want to do what is right. Certainly, people in a customer service role should be selected and trained to serve the customer.

Baldrige "Speaks"

Let me share a few questions from the Baldrige Excellence Framework® for leaders of the garden center/hardware store, their corporate management, and maybe your organization to consider:

  • How do senior leaders create and reinforce an organizational culture that values and fosters customer and workforce engagement?
  • How do you determine your customers' expectations?
  • How do you deploy (the expectations) to all people and processes involved in customer support?
  • How do you manage customer complaints? How do you resolve complaints promptly and effectively and recover customer confidence? (emphasis added)
  • How do you determine customer satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and engagement?
  • How do you ensure that your organizational culture supports your values and promotes empowerment?

If I had experienced a great purchase process, I would probably not be talking or writing about it for such a small customer engagement. But having a bad experience, all of you now know about it and can certainly relate it to experiences you have had. Furthermore, my friends and neighbors will also know the name of the store! Caveat subscriptor!

2023-2024 Baldrige Excellence Framework Business/Nonprofit cover artwork

Baldrige Excellence Framework®

The Baldrige Excellence Framework® has empowered organizations to accomplish their missions, improve results, and become more competitive. It includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence®, core values and concepts, and guidelines for evaluating your processes and results.

Purchase your copy today!

Available versions: Business/Nonprofit, Education, and Health Care

About the author

Harry Hertz “The Baldrige Cheermudgeon”

I am Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon, and Director Emeritus of the Baldrige Program. I joined the Program in 1992 after a decade in management in the analytical chemistry and chemical sciences laboratories at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the home of the Baldrige Program. I started my career at NIST (NBS) as a bench analytical chemist.

My favorite aspects of the Baldrige Program are: (1) the opportunity to interact with leading thinkers from all sectors of the U.S. economy who serve as volunteers in the Baldrige Program, who participate in the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program, and who represent Award applicants at the forefront of the continuous journey to performance excellence, and (2) the intellectual challenge of synthesizing ideas from leading thinkers and from personal research into Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence and other blogs that tackle challenges at the “leading edge of validated leadership and performance practice,” and contribute to the continuous revision of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework.

Outside of work I spend my time with family (including three beautiful granddaughters), exercising, baking bread, traveling, educating tomorrow’s leaders, and participating on various boards and board committees.

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Excellent as always, Harry

I agree with your points In this post, Harry. But to your point of not writing anything if it had been a great experience…

People are quick to complain, but slow to compliment. I make it a point that if I leave my home office during the day, I try to compliment someone e for their good work. It may be the bagger at the grocery store, it may be the priest at church - it could be anyone. And you can tell they rarely get a compliment.

I do have my customer experience horror stories, but I also really like to tell the good stories, too!

And that’s one of the great things about the Baldrige process versus regulatory survey - we acknowledge the Strengths as we also provide OFIs - what do you need to do to move to the next level of performance excellence?

Thanks for the comments. Paul, I agree that saying thank you for good service is imporatnt. That applies to customers thanking employees, as well as thanking colleagues at work.

And telling others about exceptional service is as importnt as telling those horror stories!

The principle of good (not even great) customer service seems lost on so many people in almost every sector these days. We're doing a project on burnout with one of our physicians in the EMBA program this year, and the past few years have been hard on so many people across the spectrum. While agreeing with Paul on the need to also compliment great behavior, I think we need to consider going even further and supporting people in stressful situations like the check out clerk you encountered or the haggard doctor or nurse who's dealing with high volumes and high intensity services. Remembering that behaviors are typically the result of flawed processes, I wonder if there might not be more for us to do, like help people get better work environments or pay scales. Probably not an effective solution for the garden center, but something that we need to consider for our own spheres of influence. For many, times are still tough, so maybe we need to focus on the bigger picture, too?

Great blog, Harry.

To me, this article points out the superiority of the local hardware store over the big-box home-improvement store. The hardware stores usually had long-term staff ready to help the customer and empowered to correct problems such as you experienced, whereas the big-box stores seem impersonal and it can take a while to find a knowledgeable staff member. And, as you point out, even the knowledgeable big-box staff members are not empowered to correct a problem.


I agree that it is nice to shop at local, small businesses and I try to do that. Unfortunately, they do not have a graden center in general. And, big or small, customer service should be a key factor for remaining in business! Harry

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