Tale of the Lost Refrigerator, or How One Company Lost its Work Ethic

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I’m shopping for a refrigerator to replace a custom built-in model that is in my home.

Always looking for a bargain, I went online and found a great deal on one through a major retailer. This particular fridge had been marked down because of a scratch on one side, and the way my kitchen is configured, the sides won’t show.

This scratch-and-dent refrigerator is at a store in Tennessee and I am in Colorado, but even including the cost of shipping and delivery, I will still come out way ahead. I immediately placed the refrigerator in my shopping cart, entered my credit card information and proceeded to the checkout.

“Sorry … There’s nothing I can do to help you.”

Before the sale goes through, the website requires that I call the store to set up shipping. I call Nashville at 5:37 pm Central Time and a young female voice answers the phone, listens to me explain the situation, and puts me on hold. Seven minutes later, the call disconnects.

I call back and after 19 rings, the same person answers. I tell her that she just hung up on me, and without apologizing, she says “Yeah, we’re busy. Gimme your number and I’ll have someone call you.”

I wait three hours and no call. I call back and no one answers. Evidently, the store is now closed.

I use the customer service chat feature on the retailer’s website to explain what has happened in detail. The agent types back, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do to help you. You need to call the store tomorrow. They open at 9 am CT.” (This has been edited as her reply to me contains multiple misspellings and grammatical errors.)

I keep the refrigerator in my shopping cart to make certain the purchase goes through. And just in case, I keep my computer turned on and connected to the company website all night.

An important lesson for every company

The next morning, I begin calling the Nashville store at 8:55 am Central Time hoping to get an early bird employee. No one answers. I keep calling for the next hour and a half. Still, no answer. I go back to the website and look in my cart and the refrigerator has been removed.

I immediately return to the chat feature and explain my dilemma to the next customer service agent. I plead for a manager or supervisor – anyone with the authority to help me – to call me at my home. The customer service agent takes my home/work/cell number and assures me that someone will get right back to me.

That happened last Thursday. On Monday I’m still waiting for a call, a message, an email, any sign of “we want your business” from anybody with a pulse. Crickets.

For Pete’s sake … I’m trying to pay them their advertised price of $3750 for a big box to keep my food cold. The least they could do is to take it. Instead, they slam the refrigerator door in my face.

Okay,” you’re thinking, “You’re upset, Eric. But we can’t judge the work ethic of this enormous company on this one unfortunate transaction.

Yeah, we can. And I assure you that I am not on a mission to skewer this brand, but rather to relay an important lesson from its blunders.

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As a matter of disclosure, three of my four kids worked for this retailer while they were in high school and my aunt retired from this company after 32 years of service. None of them have bad things to say about their former employer.

Losing sight of their core values

Sadly, however, from top to bottom, this organization has clearly lost sight of the core values that grew them into America’s largest retailer in the 20th century. Currently, they are closing stores right and left (more than 100 store closings in 2012) and their problems are much bigger than this current recession.

My latest book defines work ethic as knowing what to do and doing it. (Ethic is knowing what to do, work is the act of doing.) Further defined, work ethic is marked by seven core values: positive attitude, reliability, professionalism, initiative, respect, integrity, and gratitude.

The story I’ve just shared exposes a complete absence of each of those core values on behalf of numerous associates in multiple locations working in a variety of jobs on several different levels. That lack of work ethic can be tied back to the highest levels of organizational leadership and senior management.

Maybe they don’t know what to do. Or perhaps they know what to do and just aren’t doing it. But if they are simply trying to hold on until the economy improves to see a return to prominence, Sears is going to get a lot of practice in closing stores.

Like it or not, your customers are always rating your company’s work ethic and last year’s scores aren’t nearly as important as today’s.

Perhaps it’s time to check your ratings.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit revivingworkethic.com.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at EricChester.com and follow him at @eric_chester