Customer Service

When we moved back to Oregon one of my first stops, ahead of an overnight fishing trip with my son, was to Bi-Mart. For any who don’t live in the pacific northwest, Bi-Mart is a local employee owned store that sells everything from tents to hard candies, nails to plastic tumblers, flannel shirts to microwave ovens. With cement floors and employees in blue smocks, Bi-Mart was a working man’s Target before any national chain invaded the beaver state.

Stocking shelves at Bi-Mart had been my first real job back in high school, and I’d returned to unload trucks for a year after I left graduate school …ah the value of a degree in philosophy… before I decided to become a teacher.

BimartA membership store long before Costco, northwesterners have been plunking down $5 for green or yellow card since Eisenhower was in office. After almost twenty years away from my home state, my card was as gone as my misspent youth.

So, when I stepped into Bi-Mart a few weeks ago I approached the front desk with thoughts of buying another card before hunting for the perfect lure for our trip to catch smallmouth bass. That was not what happened.

Standing on the wrong side of the waist-high door just inside the Bi-Mart lobby I explained to the matronly woman in the blue smock that I needed to purchase a new card. I’d been away since 1999, I told her, and didn’t have mine any more.

“No,” she corrected me. “We say lifetime membership and that’s what we mean. What’s your name?” I provided it. She typed into the computer on the desk. “No,” she said after a minute or so. “Not there.”

It wasn’t a problem, I assured her, reaching for my wallet. I’d be happ-

“What store did you first get the card?” She interrupted with a smile.


“At which Bi-Mart did you get your first card?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Salem, I guess,” I answered. “I worked there as a kid.” She nodded. “The one on Lancaster Avenue,” I added. “But that was back in the mid-80s, and…”

…and she was back on the phone, a heavy plastic receiver to her ear, one hand held up to let me know I needed to wait. I did, watching her nod into the phone, say a few words, and then repeat: “Yes, Bjorn, B-J-O-R-N. Right.” She shifted in her chair, waiting before finally ending the call with “Oh, thanks” and jotting something on the yellow legal pad in front of her. She put down the phone and smiled at me again. “They had it,” she said, as if the fact weren’t astounding.

“Wow,” I answered. “They keep those records a long time. Do they have a different computer system than here?”

“No,” she said as she wrote her name and a number on a fresh green card. “We keep paper files on the cards we issue.”

I tried to imagine the signature of my sixteen year old self in a drawer in Salem, Oregon. The paper, more than thirty years old, would be yellow with age.

IMG_4014The woman handed me my new card and a pen to sign it. “When we say lifetime, we mean lifetime,” she said again. “Enjoy your shopping, and welcome back.”

As a principal I think a lot about the relationships I build with staff, students, and families. I always try to treat others well and do the right thing to help others. From time to time I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job, and then, just in time to keep me humble, I’m shown an example of integrity that inspires me to work even harder.

What struck me at that Bi-Mart lobby wasn’t just that a paper record of my card existed or that some legwork was able to turn up the number, though both are astounding in their own way; what really resonated with me was the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of the woman at the front desk. She was ready to go the extra mile and seemed never to doubt that the right answer was just a few steps away. She knew the company’s promise about membership and was committed to a promise printed on every card.

She did this with a smile, taking up the challenge unflinchingly and stressing to me that it was the right thing to do. Never in our interaction did she have to call a manager or ask anyone’s permission; the company’s promise was clear in her mind and she took ownership of making good on that promise.

In a world of mission statements and attempts to capture a collective vision in site plans and on brightly printed posters, this Bi-Mart example of independence and clarity of purpose struck me as profound.

When I’m asked about what we do at my school and why we do it, I want to be as certain and as friendly as the woman in the smock. I want my staff and students to be a able to articulate our “what” and “why” with confidence and a smile.

A corporate someone might call what I experienced at Bi-Mart “customer service.” I believe it’s more than that; treating people well and being committed to doing the right thing is a way of life.

As the school year gets underway I hope to refine our promise to students, our commitment to each other, and our understanding of what matters most. I hope to live my professional life with that same sense of purpose and to empower those at my school to take the same sort of ownership as did the that blue smocked hero at Bi-Mart.

Living this way doesn’t just make a short term difference. Living this way matters for a lifetime.

Wisdom Wears A Smock

The summer I was seventeen I worked at Bi-Mart, a thoroughly Oregonian department store that sold everything from diapers to ammunition. It had a rural 1970s chic, with polished cement floors, employees in blue smocks, and pallets of merchandise (wine and hosiery and potting soil) dropped into place at the ends of wide aisles of assorted miscellany.

Sometimes it could be tough to navigate if you weren’t a regular, though just about everyone was, as customers had to be Bi-Mart Members, and were issued a small paper card when they paid their $5 to be buzzed in through the swinging half door at the front of the store. Rustic, I suppose it would be called today.

I’d like to say that I learned hard work that summer at Bi-Mart, but I didn’t; putting effort toward a goal was a lesson taught to me by coaches on countless practice fields long before my senior year of high school. One lesson from Bi-Mart, however, has stuck with me through today, and in its way, provided an example of the strange sources inspiration can come from.

“Always walk the customer to the merchandise.”

He was a tall man with a long nose wearing the red smock of a department manager. I was newly promoted to work the floor, after proving myself unloading lawn furniture and barbecues from trucks out in the parking lot for what Bi-Mart called the Summer Tent Sale.

“You could tell them what aisle what they’re looking for is on,” he explained to me, “but what really makes a difference is stopping what you’re doing and taking them to it.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time, just more advice to an awkward teenager wearing the required tie beneath my blue smock. I filed it alongside “always face the toy aisles last” and “keep the beer shelves full.” But as June turned into July and I kept regular in practicing taking customers to what they wanted, I began to see just how much it really did matter.

The relieved smile as I walked a grandmother to the ace bandages, the appreciation on the face of the little boy looking for legos, the genuine “thanks” from the man who hadn’t been able to find toilet wax, all these people taught me the value of taking a few extra minutes that they weren’t expecting you would, and leading them to exactly what they needed.

It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to my work as a site administrator.

The parents I listen to in my office don’t know about Bi-Mart, though I’m told sometimes (often months later) that they appreciate the extra time I take to hear what they have to say. This doesn’t mean that the answer I walk them to is always the one they came in after at the start, but it’s always an honest answer, delivered, I hope, with the same level of respect the seventeen year old me showed the customers when I walked them to fishing lures or portable electronics.

Yesterday afternoon an even more literal reminder of my days in a blue smock presented itself when a mom and her daughter arrived at Diegueño to register for school. New to the area, they came prepared, brought all the right paperwork, and got signed up for classes. Then, like an octogenarian searching for hard candy, they peeked into my office and asked if they could look around campus.

That advice from almost thirty years ago whispered in my ear, and with my best Bi-Mart smile, I put down the work I was doing and said: “I can show you around.”

The look on the mom’s face was the best part of my week.

Thirty minutes later we finished our campus tour, and they left with a little more information and a little less anxiety than they’d had when they arrived.

Would I have done the same thing if I hadn’t gotten that direction from the beak nosed department manager back when I was seventeen? Maybe. I’m honestly not sure.

I do know that in each of the eight years I’ve been a site administrator, not a month has gone by that I haven’t thought about standing there on that polished cement floor getting words of wisdom from a man in a smock.