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Corporate Culture: Your Customers Shall Reap What You Sow.

Corporate cultures are all very different and make all the difference in customers’ experience and loyalty. About 1.3 miles from our front door, a new mixed-use, “Town Center” has opened its first few stores. My partner and I are at the grocery store and the gym just about every day now. There couldn’t be a wider gap between their corporate cultures. The grocery store, Wegman’s, is renowned for its fair treatment of its employees. They’re well paid, have excellent benefits and receive in-depth training in their specific specialties. The people behind the cheese counter, for example, all have been to multiple cheese-making regions and countries, at company expense, to learn the fineries of fromage. Tipping is not allowed in its pub. There’s a cadre of “Helping Hands” by the checkouts. I stopped by one morning to pick up sandwiches for a client meeting and discovered that the kitchen wouldn’t begin to make the ones I coveted until hours later. I explained my dilemma to a counter person, who brought out the executive chef. Not only did the chef drop everything and make those three sandwiches, she insisted on reviewing my “luncheon menu” to be sure I had a salt, a sweet and a fruit. Then she took the grapes I had selected for my "fruit course" into the kitchen, washed and towel-dried them.

Last evening, after a late dinner at P.F. Chang’s new outlet (replete with plastic replicas of the desserts -- another blog), we stopped at Wegman’s for a few things. Even after 9:00 p.m., there was still a guy in the produce section to give us a ten-minute lesson on the origins and uses of the $999/pound (there is not a decimal point missing) black truffles. Guess where we shop now, exclusively.

That brings us to the gym, LA | Fitness, where commissioned twenty-something employees hover around the front door, waiting to ensnare potential new members. It’s no accident that the most prominent feature of the place is a row of desks with computer monitors, at which these desperados ply their trade. Don’t get me wrong: we think the facility is first rate and we’ve recommended it to many people, several of whom have become members. Thus demonstrating the LA | Fitness culture. We joined the club months months before it was built, paying an “initiation fee,” (we’re betting that’s the commission payment) and agreeing to a monthly fee we were told we’d never see so low again.

After opening, we delivered a friend directly into the clutches of a salesman, who promised her “the same great rate your friends are getting.” She reported the next day that, in fact, she paid a smaller initiation fee and a monthly fee that’s 15% lower than ours. In pursuit of fair treatment, we made an appointment with the manager, who didn’t remember the appointment when we arrived. He fussed with his computer screen for 15 minutes, while mumbling platitudes about “getting this fixed for you.” He ended by handing us his business card, with the handwritten name and number name of someone “at corporate” on the back who would assure that we were treated fairly.

He made quite a flourish of demonstrating his sincerity by giving us his cell phone number, adding it to his card, in red — with a rubber stamp. After leaving two messages over four days, “corporate” answered my third call. (Of course he was “just about to call.” (Imagine the coincidence!) That’s when the Machiavellian drama began. We had agreed to our contract price, he told us; we signed a contract. The company has to right to run sales. We were free to quit and rejoin during a sale and pay a new initiation fee. Or we could “take advantage” of three differently priced “buy-down plans,” the gist of which we were to pay more money (from $150 - $350) to lower our monthly rate. Incredulous, I asked “Do you mean to tell me that you consider it to be fair and ethical treatment to make that offer to a customer who has brought you several new customers, all of whom all received better deals, a customer who gave you capital, at no interest for months, to help build your facility?” Well, as a matter of fact, he thought that was perfectly reasonable. And, despite his claim that he was the only person in the entire company with the authority to change a member’s rate, he couldn’t just change the rate because “the computer system” wouldn’t allow him to exercise this Pyrrhic power.

As of this writing, we’re back dealing with the manager again, who has promised to “make the case” to someone else in the interest of being “ethical and building a good reputation in the community.” We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the second time. But he probably has a nice bridge he can sell me, too. We still work out virtually daily at our new LA | Fitness. But the corporate culture there has guaranteed that we won’t be referring any more customers. PS: We are not alone! has plenty to say about the company’s culture.

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