Weathering a Tornado with Target’s Customer Service

Customer Service in Target

We were heading toward the check-out line when an announcement came over the PA: “Attention Target Shoppers! Due to a tornado in the area, all customers must remain in the store. Please make your way to the back of the store and stay away from windows.”

The announcement was unwelcome news at 7:30 pm. I’d had a root canal earlier that day. And the oral surgeon had instructed me to buy a mouthguard to wear while sleeping. So my 8-year-old daughter, Abby, and I took a quick run to Target.

We joined other shoppers and Target employees in the back of the store. A few teenage employees started bouncing beach balls. They invited Abby and other kids to join them in a game. She jumped into the fun and was soon frolicking around with these “cool” older kids. I retreated to the sidelines with other shoppers who were setting up picnic chairs to watch the games.

Later, I started to shiver and felt bored. So I wandered around and grabbed a beach towel and a book to get comfy again. Meanwhile, the Target employees’ only concern was the safety and comfort of their guests. Not a single eyebrow was raised when shoppers used Target merchandise to soothe and entertain themselves. Clearly, Target cared more about their customers than their merchandise.

The tornado veered south and we avoided a catastrophe that night. But I was blown away with Target’s display of customer service and thought to myself, “How did every employee instinctively know how to behave in an emergency? How did they all know that their top priority was to satisfy their customers’ needs? This must be a core value of the company.” Target won our loyalty that evening.

In February 2019 (nineteen years later), Abby landed a dream job at Target Headquarters as a Senior Business Partner. She called me at the end of her first day, bubbling with excitement about the new employee training. The trainees were sharing stories about customer experiences that reflect Target’s Purpose Statement:  “To help all families experience the joy of everyday life.”

She didn’t choose the tornado story because—thankfully—tornados are rare. Although our experience was not an “everyday life” event, it exemplifies how employees’ investment in a core purpose might help companies weather stormy times.

A Leader’s Compass 

After that experience, I continued to ponder the question of how a company or leader motivates employees to behave in a way that is consistent with its core values. I was fortunate to be working at General Mills, which offered a robust learning environment for leadership development. Through various training courses and guest speakers, I had the opportunity to hear leaders like Malcolm Gladwell share their wisdom. But one keynote speaker, Ed Ruggero, and his book, The Leader’s Compass, resonated with my observations about how Target’s employees instinctively knew that customers come before merchandise. It starts with values and how individual leaders in a company maintain an ethical compass.

Leadership Philosophy

The Leader’s Compass tells a story about a business leader, named Guy Cedrick, who learned important leadership lessons the hard way. Through Guy’s story, we observe how leaders who fail to articulate their leadership philosophy create ambiguity and confusion within their teams.

On the other hand, leaders who clearly articulate their leadership philosophies provide a compass for themselves and their teams. Staff don’t need to spend time guessing what their boss wants and what the rules are. Bosses who act in accordance with their own stated leadership values gain credibility and trust. So, what might go into developing a leadership philosophy?

  • Values—What is important to you (e.g., honesty, fairness, respect, teamwork, excellent results)?
  • Ethics—Based on your values, what are the guardrails for acceptable behavior? How will you set the example and take personal responsibility?
  • Leadership principles—What behaviors do you expect of yourself and others?
  • Personal idiosyncrasies—Do you have any peculiar likes (laughter and fun) and dislikes (tardiness or crude jokes) that your team should know?

Finding Your Leadership Compass

Start by reflecting on what you think makes an effective leader. Conjure the “best” and “worst” leaders you’ve experienced. What were their actions? Values? Skills and abilities (both technical and interpersonal)? Reflect on these lists and find patterns in the comparison. Then compose 1-2 paragraphs that clarify what makes a good leader and a bad one—for you. If you’re having a hard time with the process of clarifying, think about what makes you apoplectic. When something or someone hits a nerve, you’ve bumped into a core value.

Crafting Your Leadership Compass

Step back and examine your own leadership style and personality relative to these good and bad leaders. Be honest with yourself. Which characteristics come easy to you? Consider which ones are hard. Decide which ones do you want to live by? Use these insights to define:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you value
  • Your priorities
  • Your expectations

Pick your top 3-4 stated and implicit values. Write them down in words that sound how you might say them to someone else. Add the ethical rules and leadership principles you expect of yourself and others. Finally, include your personal likes and dislikes, or “hot button” issues.

Your Leadership Stories

Reflect on your life stories that shaped your leadership philosophy. Who are the mentors that influenced you? Are there any lessons that you learned the hard way? What challenging events transformed how you work and lead? Share these stories to communicate who you are and how you lead. Have them ready for important leadership moments:  job interviews, networking, or introducing yourself to a new team that you’ll lead.

The words on the page of a corporate vision, mission, and value statement might sound great. But they mean nothing if they aren’t translated into day-to-day action through leaders across an organization. The Leader’s Compassmight help that happen.

“Always be a first rate version of yourself rather than a second rate version of someone else.
—Judy Garland

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