It was a small incident with a big implication! I was in the middle of checking out of the grocery store when the store manager approached the checkout clerk running the cash register. First, turning to me he said, “Excuse me”; then, turning to her he said, “I need to speak to you in private for a moment.”

I could not hear the conversation but clearly heard the phrase “annual performance review” in their brief encounter. She returned with a disgusted look on her face and silently finished ringing up my groceries. As I was leaving, I watched the same store manager approach another cashier with the exact same ritual.

Leaders are always on stage. And, their behavior telegraphs to their audience — employees and customers — what matters most. For the grocery store manager, the annual performance review ritual trumped taking care of customers. Humorist Will Rogers said, “People learn from observation, not from conversation.” While he was speaking of politicians, his sentiment applies to leadership stage management!

So, what does customer-centric stage management look like for a leader?

recite-zifh96I have a deep and abiding love for Tabasco pepper sauce on just about everything. Having lived in New Mexico and worked a lot in Mexico and Central America, I have cultivated a robust preference for hot spicy food. A good breakfast is not a perfect breakfast without a few jalapenos on the side and a lot of Tabasco pepper sauce on top.

One morning I walked into the Huddle House near my home for breakfast and ordered scrambled eggs with Tabasco. I typically breakfast at the Waffle House, but this restaurant was on my path that morning. The happy-go-lucky waitress cheerfully announced, “Will Texas Pete be OK?” Now, there is nothing wrong with Texas Pete pepper sauce except it’s not hot. Her question was like asking a Coke fan, “Would Pepsi be OK instead?” The bad boy in me wanted to say “Would Canadian money be OK instead?” since I had just returned from working in Toronto!

The next week, a breakfast meeting with a friend put me back in the same Huddle House. When we sat down and the waitress brought menus and placed a brand-new bottle of Tabasco sauce on our table. She excitedly announced, “We were keeping it on our shelf just in case you came back to see us again.” And, with that pronouncement, I saw a smile on the face of the staff who seemed to have all been a part this special hot-sauce planning, including the restaurant manager.

Now, here is the best part. During my Tabasco-laden breakfast, I watched an obviously very poor customer come in alone and sit in a booth in front of us. My “we’ve-got-your-back” waitress sat down in front of the man (not over him) to take order — a cup of coffee and a single biscuit. After finishing his meal, he quietly walked to the register to pay his bill. It was the restaurant manager who then stepped up, took his check, and said, “Sir, it’s your lucky day! Your meal is on the house.” With that, she took money out of the cash drawer and dropped in the tip jar for the waitress who had taken his order.

There was no cheering in the restaurant; no attaboys, high-fives or noisy fanfare. Several customers watched the entire checkout scene and smiled. The restaurant priority was unmistakably focused on the customer. The mood behind the counter was one of obvious pride. And, you could sense that in the hearts of all the employees, their restaurant manager was getting a standing ovation.

Chip R. Bell is a keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.” He can be reached at ChipBell.com.

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