July/August  2002

Behind The Counter

The Kid
by Lyle R. Hill

He was a good-looking kid … 12 years old I would guess … maybe 13. He was dressed appropriately for the cold weather that was still holding Chicago in its icy grip. Indeed, it was now early March, yet much of December’s snow was still piled in dirty mounds throughout the city. I was sitting in the local drugstore waiting area while a prescription that was designed to knock out the lingering congestion from a month-old cold was being processed. There was a pay phone in the area, and the kid first caught my eye when he walked up to it and deposited a quarter.

“Hello, Mr. Cardullo,” the kid began. “My name is Jimmy. I represent Clean Cut Lawn Service and I was wondering if I could provide you with a quotation to do your grass cutting this coming summer?”

His voice was pleasant and calm. Really a likable kid I thought. He finished his pitch and received the response from the person on the other end of the line. Then he spoke again. 

“Oh, I see. So you’re quite happy with your current service and not looking to make a change. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me and have a good day.”

He hung up, dropped another quarter into the pay phone and made his next call. Unfortunately, the results were the same. This time, the guy was named Resnick, but the result was the same. A person by the name of Littman came next. Littman was more abrupt than the first two people he had called, but the kid stayed cool and composed. I was starting to like this kid, but by now, I was starting to feel sorry for him, too.

“Hey, kid,” I said, “Maybe it’s too early to be calling people about their grass-cutting needs. Maybe you’d get a better response if you waited ‘til April or May.”

“Thanks mister, but I think you can never get started too early. And besides, haven’t you ever heard that it’s the early bird that catches the worm?”

Of course I’d heard that old worn out saying … maybe a thousand times or more. In fact, I used to use it myself on a regular basis when I was this kid’s age. But after awhile, I was bothered by the saying because it really didn’t make any sense. You see, the worm the early bird is after has to be early too, or he won’t be there for the bird to catch. And having come to believe that most worms are nocturnal and long underground before the first bird arrives on the scene, I came to believe that the early bird would only be successful if some unfortunate worm was running late. And didn’t the whole thing really depend on your point of view? If you’re a worm, you do not want to be early or late … just right on time. And if you’re a bird, the early routine will fail more often than it succeeds. But it had been years since I’d pondered all of this, and yet somehow, in that split second, the problem, with all of its complexities, came flooding back into my mind. 

“Listen kid,” I finally said, feeling truly sorry for him, “you can cut my lawn this summer if you’d like.”

“Thank you, but to be honest mister, I don’t know if I can squeeze you in or not this summer. We’re really pretty full right now.”

“But wait a minute,” I said, taken aback by his response to my generosity. “I just heard three people in a row turn you down. If you were full, then why were you calling them to get their work this summer?”

“Well,” he replied, exposing a bit of a sly smile, “my company is actually called ‘Grass America’ and those people I called are already my customers.” 

“Kid, I’m confused. Then why were you calling?” 

“To see if they were happy with their present supplier … me,” he fired back. “You see,” he continued, “I know it’s a lot harder to get a new customer than it is to keep an old one. And while my tactics might be a little sneaky, I just want to make sure I’m doing my job to their complete satisfaction. I also know there’s always somebody who will be cheaper than me, so it’s important that I offer quality work and offer a very high level of customer satisfaction.”

Wow … this is one sharp kid, I thought. He recognized the importance of customer satisfaction and while his methods were a little unusual, in his own way he was measuring the level of his performance relative to his customer’s point of view. There are a lot of well-established professionals that could learn from this kid.

“You know kid, “ I finally said, “I want to compliment you on your business smarts. You’re going to go a long way.” 

“Thanks mister,” he replied, “and if I get any openings for this summer I’ll call you right away. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Yeah kid, there is…if you’ve got a moment, could we talk about this early bird and worm thing? You see, I’ve got a problem with it and maybe you can help.”

“Sure mister … let’s do lunch … naturally, you’ll be buying.”

I thought about the worm and wondered … does he know when he’s about to get caught? 

HILL1 Lyle Hill spends nearly every Saturday “behind the counter” at Glass America, a dealer of windows, doors, glass and other products. He is also president of MTH Industries of Chicago, Ill., one of the largest specialty contractors in the world.


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