Are you a Linchpin or a Cog?

plumbing under sink

by Jay Zenner on July 6, 2010

Real estate marketing lessons from strange places.

I hadn’t talked to Homer in a while. Homer is a fellow real estate agent weathering the storm of a lousy housing market in a part time job at our favorite “big box” hardware store. When I ran into Homer he was in the “Tool Corral” where all the toys for guys are. It was almost Fathers Day so there were special displays clogging the aisles.

When Homer saw me, his eyes lit up and he came across and greeted me hardily. I was a little surprised. Working the plumbing aisle does not come with an executive salary and it’s hard on the feet. Previously when I’d seen him he was pleasant enough but a little sheepish and possibly embarrassed that he had to resort to this.

But today was different. There was a hop in his step and genuine pleasure in seeing me. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Well what got into you? You seem unusually peppy for a very warm spring day.

Homer: I love the summer weather. But, hey, that’s not why I’m feeling good.

Me: You gonna share the secret? A new woman in your life? A big raise? You’ve got a client ready to make an offer?

Homer: Well, I do have a client and we may have found a home that he and his wife might buy. But that ain’t it. In fact, that may be more “effect” than “cause.”

Me: Huh?

Homer: Ha! That does sound a little…obtuse… I guess. This is the thing…I’ve been reading something pretty interesting…you’re a fan of Seth Godin, aren’t you?

Me: I am. I can remember reading his book about permission marketing before anyone had heard of him and then listening to it a couple more times on tape on rides up to Richmond to visit my family.

Homer: His latest book is call Linchpin.

Me: I’ve ordered it but haven’t read it yet. I take it you would recommend it?

Homer: Actually, I haven’t even finished it but I’ve read enough that it’s changed the way I approach a lot of things including my job here at Big Box.

Me: That good, huh?

Homer: It was a little disturbing at first. He trashes one of my heroes, Michael Gerber.

Me: Michael Gerber of E-Myth fame?

Homer: Yes. Sort of central to Gerber’s advice is that you build a business around detailed policies and procedures so that the people you hire don’t have to think and are interchangeable…cogs in a machine. He says you can’t build a successful business on “exceptional” people.

Me: Doesn’t a store like Big Box have a lot of policies and procedures?

Homer: Oh Boy, no kidding. The deal is though that at my level they aren’t communicated very well especially to part timers like me. In fact, the communication to the troops is pretty lousy. I’ve heard Pfcs in the Army say the same thing.

Me: I take it that Godin challenges some of that.

Homer: Well, it is more of a self-help book. He argues that to be successful…actually, that’s not the best way to say it…to be more genuine…to be more valuable…you have to stop being a cog and become an artist.

Me: So you’ve become the artist of the plumbing aisle.

Homer: Well, I’m working on it. The odd thing is Big Box seems to recognize this need at some level. What’s funny is that they have tried to make it a procedure and give us little cards and merit badges when we can feed back the steps they have developed for engaging our customers.

Me: The “paint by the numbers” approach to becoming an artist.

Homer: Yeah. That’s kind of the way it is. And you know how good that art is. The problem is that there a lot of different types of customers. Some come in here and know exactly what they want. Others can stand there for a few minutes using their hands to try to describe what they need without having the language to identify it.

Me: So the formula doesn’t work?

Homer: There is no formula that works in every situation. The neon aprons we wear are supposed to recall the good ol’ days when the guy that ran the hardware store knew all his customers and knew where to find every nut and bolt and how to use every tool. He could advise you on almost anything.

Me: He was an artist?

Homer: Yeah, maybe. At least in the sense that Godin is talking about in Linchpin.

Me: And that’s what’s put the spring in your step?

Homer: Ha! Well I’m working on the approach. What I decided to do was simply try to engage each customer in a friendly way and try to help them as much as I could.

Me: Is that working.

Homer: It works for me. The hours go much faster. It’s much more satisfying trying to help people than standing around bitching about the stupid rules. My feet don’t even seem to hurt as much as they used to.

Me: Can you give me an example of how it works.

Homer: Hmm…sure. The other day I caught a call from somebody looking for a particular toilet seat. Now 99% of toilet seats are either round or elongated and have a spread between the bolts that attach them to the tank of about five and a half inches. This guy was looking for one he thought was round and had a ten inch spread. My initial assumption was that he didn’t know what he was talking about and I patiently explained the way things were.

Me: But that’s not the end of the story.

Homer: No, he actually had a model number from the seat manufacturer. So, I got his phone number and told him that I would research it call him back. I went to our special order catalog and found a couple of seats with the ten inch spread…something I didn’t know existed and had never had a request for in the two years I’ve been here.

Me: So you ordered one.

Homer: They weren’t the one he was looking for. So I googled around for a while and found what I thought they needed on a really dreadful website of a plumbing supply place. When I called back I got the man’s wife. Turned out they were trying to find the seat for a friend who lived in a third world country where they don’t throw away functioning toilets when they go out of style.

Me: That’s an issue for another day.

Homer: Yeah, right. Anyway, she wanted to come in and see what I had come up with. Both of them came in an hour or so later. I ended up printing out the information from the website and they went on their way.

Me: But you didn’t sell them anything.

Homer: I had nothing to sell them. But I probably solved their problem and they’ll remember that. But the real point is that I felt like more than just a cog in the Big Box machine.

Me: You felt like an artist?

Homer: Well, not Van Gogh, but, yeah. It was a much more satisfying experience than just blowing them off.

Me: And your supervisor gave you an attaboy for great customer service?

Homer: They don’t know about it. I’m not sure they would even approve. That’s not why I’m doing it.

Me: So, are you saying that there’s some carryover to your real estate business.

Homer: I think so. I’ve been showing this client homes for a good while and on this last one he said something about what he was looking for that I hadn’t heard before. Thinking about it, he’d given me plenty of signals but I was more focused on me than him. I know that if I’d have picked it up earlier I could have made this process less stressful than it has been…for both of us.

Me: So I should read the book?

Homer: Absolutely. Listen, I gotta go. There’s somebody down there with the toilet repair stuff that looks totally befuddled. Time to go build up her confidence!

Me: But I’m looking for a fitting for my ice maker…

Homer: Right there on your left…you’re a smart guy…you can figure it out. I need a bigger challenge. (big smile) Ha!

He was right. I did figure it out.  And so had he.

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Photo credit to Stephen Pierzchala from the Flickr Creative Commons

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