Today’s post is from Robert Spector, best-selling author of The Mom & Pop Store: True Stories from the Heart of America and The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence: Creating a Values-Driven Service Culture.
As a customer service pioneer, I’d consider Robert Spector a global authority on “make mom proud” companies. In honor of the release of my book, Would You Do That To Your Mother? The Make Mom Proud Standard for How to Treat Your Customers, we’re sharing Robert’s beautiful story. I encourage you to visit the Make Mom Proud website to share your story as well.
The Nobility of Sacrifice
There are few businesses other than a family-run store where the children of the owners can fully appreciate what their parents do to put food on the table. Every Saturday, for all of my teenage years, I worked side-by-side with my mother in our family shop, which gave me a firsthand appreciation for the kind of person she was, and the sacrifices she made for the good of her family.
Florence Spector, born Feiga Okner in Bershad, Ukraine, had lost both her parents by the time she was nine years old in 1921. She was adopted by her brother Zalman (20 years her senior) and his wife Bessie, who brought her to America three years later. Zalman was an orthodox Jew, who never worked on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and neither did my mother. All that changed in 1935 when she married Fred Spector and came to work in the family business in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The Spectors, shall we say, were considerably less religious than the Okners.
Spector’s Meat Market, started by my immigrant father Fred and grandfather Isadore, was the anchor for the outdoor Farmers Market, which had been a center of commerce ever since Perth Amboy’s founding in 1683. To picture the layout of the Market, imagine a T-Square. The spine of the “T” was a 15-foot-wide paved, covered walkway, running almost the entire length of a city block. This is where farmers would set up their displays to sell fruit, vegetables, eggs, and poultry out of the back of their pick-up trucks. (Decades earlier, the ancestors of those farmers did the same thing from their horse-drawn wagons.)
At the top of the “T” was Spector’s Meat Market, where we pushed up garage doors to reveal our showcases crowded with steaks, lamb chops, chop meat, calves’ brains, pork butts, hams and cold cuts of every variety and ethnicity. That area was patrolled by my grandfather, father, uncle, cousins, and non-family employees, who dodged and elbowed and shoved each other in the tight space between the showcases and the work shelf that was armed with cleavers, slicers, saws, grinders and knives.
A couple of feet away from this chaos was Florence’s domain—a hundred-square foot space to the left (customer’s right), where she sold bagels, hard rolls, onion rolls, crullers, and jelly doughnuts (my favorites), all for a nickel apiece (in 1960), as well as chocolate layer cakes, cheesecakes, and various breads, including four-pound ryes and pumpernickels for 85 cents apiece.
Florence was a pretty woman, about five feet three, a nice figure in her day, and dark auburn hair, which was one of her few vanities. She regularly visited the beauty parlor for her hair to be colored and her fingernails to be manicured and polished, and was a stylish dresser in her civilian life. But at the butcher shop in the sub-freezing New Jersey winters, she would bundle up in inelegant layers of clothing and wool mittens cut off at the finger tips.
As a merchant, she was unflaggingly polite; sincere but not cloying. She always had a smile and a kind word. And like everyone else in our shop, she was a hard worker. She was used to that. Before marriage, she had worked several years at the H.L. Green five-and-ten-cent store in Newark, New Jersey, so she knew the rituals of retail.
Although Spector’s Meat Market was nothing fancy, my mother did her part to provide a pleasant shopping experience in her little space. My father had no intention of teaching me how to be a butcher. So, beginning on the Saturday following my bar mitzvah, at age 13, I helped mom sell the baked goods, which I did virtually every Saturday until I left for college at age 18.
If a customer didn’t want to buy the whole four-pound loaf of rye or pumpernickel, we were happy to sell them a half or a quarter loaf. My mother would take out her big bread knife and neatly cut the bread to the preferred size.
If a customer wanted half of one of the seven-layer chocolate cakes we sold, Florence happily obliged. After cutting the cake in half, she used another knife to cut into two pieces the top half of the cardboard box that the cake came in and put together the two pieces to create one neat little improvised box that was filled with half a cake. Finally, she’d take some string and tie together the two pieces of cardboard, leaving enough string for a handle, so that the customer could easily tote the package home. And she would top it all off with a smile and a thank-you. I watched her perform these simple acts a thousand times.
So, what did I learn working alongside my mother? Both my parents taught me the importance of hard work and honesty and treasuring each customer. But when I think about my mother, my big takeaway is the nobility of sacrifice. She grew up as an observant Jew and was most at peace praying in synagogue. In fact, she once seriously dated a man who became a rabbi. “I could have been a rebbitzen [a rabbi’s wife],” she would occasionally say with a smile, that couldn’t completely hide perhaps a pinch of regret. She disliked the idea of working on the Sabbath, but she had no choice, because most of the week’s profits came from the business we did on Saturday when the Farmers Market was teeming with hundreds and hundreds of shoppers.
Life’s lesson: You do what you need to do in order to survive.
As I grew up and went out into the world on my own as a writer, I did what I needed to do in order to keep my career going. Whenever I was down, I reflected back on those days in our little shop, and the noble example my mom showed to my two sisters and me.
In 1970, after my father sold the business and retired, my mother told him, half-serious and half-joking, “Fred, I’m going to make a real Jew out of you now.” From then on, until she passed away in 1982, Fred and Florence Spector were regulars at Sabbath services every Friday night and Saturday morning at Temple Beth Mordecai. For the previous four-plus decades, my mother did what my father needed. After Spector’s Meat Market was no more, my father did what my mother needed. Her sacrifice was rewarded. A pretty good life bargain, wouldn’t you say?
How would your company act if every customer were your mom?
How do we cut through the rigmarole of business to give customers the treatment they desire, and employees the ability to deliver it? Customer experience expert, Jeanne Bliss recommends making business personal to get the traction you need by focusing on one deceptively simple question: “Would you do that to your mother?”