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In Employees We Trust

Howard Scott |

I visited a fairly new drycleaner recently, and what I saw there shocked me. A young couple owned the store. The wife stayed at the counter, and the husband processed the work in back. When a second counterstaffer helped a customer, the wife came forward and manned the cash register. When it happened a second time, I blinked hard.
Later, I asked the couple what the counter personnel do. “The counterperson helps the customer, but only I — we — handle the money,” they said in unison. “I don’t allow any of my staff to touch the money, because I don’t want any problems. One of us is always there, so there will never be any stealing at our establishment.”
If that isn’t a formula for remaining a Mom-and-Pop shop, I don’t know what is. It means that the owners can never be away from the company at the same time; one always has to be there. How does this couple take a vacation? How will they ever unwind together if one of them always has to be in the shop? How are they going to live a life?
Life is a balancing act. Work to the exclusion of everything else dampens the spirit, kills the appetite and eventually bores into the soul, hollowing it out. Either the couple will be zombies, or they’ll become so burnt-out that they’ll hate the business — their slave-master. Hard work is important, but living nothing but a work-filled life is not the way to sustain the entrepreneurial drive.
Second, it’s awkward for one staffer to start a transaction and for another — in this case, the owner — to complete it. It means four sets of hands, and it looks bad. It discombobulates the customer. The customer likes his/her transaction to be fluid, seamless, no-fuss.
And what happens if a customer is having a conversation with the staffer? Now, he or she has to stand there and talk while the boss is ringing the sale. The conversation is bound to expand to a threesome, whether the customer wants it to expand or not. And if someone else walks in, the counterstaffer must disengage and serve the new customer. A transaction like this will annoy most, if not all, customers.
Third, the transaction is inefficient. Involving two staffers when one would do is counterproductive. Two hands are better than four. You can make better use of staffers’ time, unless there is no more work to do. In that case, the business might just as well close its doors.
But it’s the fourth reason that makes a “no cash register” management style so disastrous. It kills the one bond that staffers need in order to grow — trust. If an employee is worried that you’re looking over his or her shoulder, he or she will never feel comfortable.
If an employee isn’t allowed to deal with the customer directly, how can he or she take an interest in customer goodwill? If an employee feels his or her role has narrow confines, he or she will not become creative or resourceful. If an employee knows he or she isn’t trusted with the money, he or she could become resentful and find a way to subvert the business — perhaps stealing money from the register just to affirm or reaffirm the bosses’ paranoia.
At any rate, an employee in an operation like this will feel like a second-class citizen — not an integral team member. He or she will feel like a slave who facilitates transactions, but can’t initiate them. Money is the life force of the business, and if an employee isn’t trusted to deal with it, he or she isn’t part of the whole.
Contrast this with operators that empower even their part-time staffers, letting them operate the cash register and get involved in company decisions. These employees feel some responsibility for the success or failure of the business, and consequently will take more interest in it, concentrate more, and try to integrate with the team.
You give up some degree of control when you give an employee the keys to the cash register, of course. And there are staffers who will take advantage of that trust, and occasionally pull some money out for their own purposes. But you will be able to detect that loss quickly, and you can put controls in place before much cash disappears. While the “no cash register” management style stops unwanted thefts, it ruins something much more important — the human spirit. And that’s the key to expansion and prosperity.
When I owned a business, I took a month-long vacation every May. I’d leave May 1 and return May 30, and I would never call in to find out if everything was OK. A month with the boss away? Surely, the staffers will play.
But no — they continued to work, and worked hard. They gave 90% if not 100%, and that’s plenty. I came back to the store refreshed and ready to tackle another full year of challenges. Did some of them steal from me? Maybe — there were 17 of them. I’m not sure, but I didn’t really care.
When I returned, there was cashflow, we were still in business, and they — the employees — had allowed me to get away for a month. Now I was back, and I could monitor things more carefully. We would grow and prosper — and those vacations, I believe, were one of the keys to my success.
One thing’s for sure: The young couple I mentioned above will never be so lucky. And that’s because they won’t allow themselves to trust their people.
 

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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