About six years ago I had a chance to completely humiliate myself in front of Mike Richardson, the long-time VP of Marketing for Casey's General Stores.
Mike and I were sitting in his spacious office, which is tucked inside Casey's Corporate on the east side of I-35 in Ankeny.
I felt sorry for him. Mike was trying not to throw up while we listened to something that sounded - to quote Jean Seberg describing co-star Clint Eastwood's crooning in Paint Your Wagon - like rain gurgling down a rusty pipe.
The rain was a jingle I was playing off a CD - kids, ask your parents what "CD" means. I had conceived, written, sung, accompanied and produced the jingle - which suggests that people with jingle ideas who are dangerous enough to create them and then feel like sharing them, should lie down until the feeling passes.
The lyrics went a little somepin like dis:
(sung to the worst music ever created on a piano)
We're in your town, just down the street...
The smiling faces you will meet...
We're the friendly folks that you will find,
When you see the red and yellow siiiign...
Caaaseeey's - just like coming hoooooome.
Too bad Mike wasn't at his hoooooome while I was playing the jingle in his ooooooffice.
He reacted with a very generous "I like it." I reacted with words that you won't find in How to Win Friends And Influence People.
"Have you ever heard the urban legend that Casey's gas is watered down?"
Two words: Super Genius.
Mike could have had me assassinated with one phone call (to Casey's Carry-out Assassinations) but instead, leaned back in his chair and said, "Yes - I have heard that."
Wow. That's why Mike is considered one of the brightest corporate minds in a building full of very bright people. He got it.
I brought this up to him - and he knew it - because I felt and still feel a deep affection for Casey's, and thought I was onto something that might help the company.
"How many people," I asked Mike, "do you suppose have driven right past Casey's over the years, because they thought the same thing?"
It's incalculable - as is the number of times I've shoved my foot in my mouth.
But the question I asked him six years ago, and the review you're about to read are, in a sense, bookends to one secret shopper's life-long experience with an Iowa-born and raised company I have admired - for their growth, for providing employment to small town Iowa, for their philanthropic endeavors, for their positive economic impact - ever since I ate my first Casey's cookie, 19,249 chocolate chips ago.
Forgoing what was started four reviews ago, there's no "suit" vs. "jeans," no "Jonathan" vs. "Jonnie." It's "Secret Shopping: Unplugged" - go in, walk past the clerk, hang a left at the cooler, walk back to the bathroom, then straight to the food warmers/kitchen, then over to the cookie rack at the check-out counter, grab one, ring it up, hit the road.
That's 10 visits to 10 stores, with a process that is simple, clean and telling.
What those visits should tell us is:
1. Will the clerk greet as I first enter the store - setting the tone for the entire shopping experience?
2. Is the bathroom clean - one of the most important factors for consumers shopping at a convenience store?
3. Will the cook notice and acknowledge me?
4. Given a second opportunity, will the clerk greet and engage me, with something besides the total of my purchase?
5. Will the clerk thank me for coming in?
Want to know how important these elements are to Casey's?
Look no further than Ronald Lamb, Chairman Of The Board of Casey's General Stores - whose words are prominently displayed at the top of pages on the Casey's web site:
"Through the years, Casey’s success has been attributed to our clean stores, restrooms, and the friendly employees who pride themselves in customer service. Casey’s customers have come to know that inside each store they will find dedicated, helpful, and well-trained employees, exceptional prepared food items, and a clean environment in which to shop. Providing these services, and exceeding customer expectations, continues to be our focus now and into the future."
If the words "friendly employees," "clean stores/restrooms" and "customer service" are in the first sentence of a mission statement from a company's CEO, it seems reasonable and fair to believe we should consistently experience those things as shoppers at every location of that store.
Let's see, then, if Casey's lives up to the promise of their marketing.
First, an overview of the Secret Shopper scoring system:
The store reviews are presented in the order I shopped them - with the time I got there, along with the store address.
12:05pm - 6110 Merle Hay Road in Johnston
Things started out great.
I was greeted immediately by D.J., from behind the counter.
"How's it goin?"
That would be the last time I was greeted as I came in - for the remaining nine stores.
The female clerk standing beside him said nothing. Apparently they were using an "up" system. "You greet the next customer. Then I'll greet the next. Then..."
The bathroom needed its own up system - as in "cleaned up."
The sink was dirty and the toilet needed cleaned at the base by the floor. The floor itself was good.
For those of you who are thinking, "You're being extremely picky, Felix Unger," my response is - I have bad eyes. I wasn't wearing my glasses. I saw the dirt from the door. I'm a dude. If I see it, a distrated one-eyed giraffe would see it.
There was no one in the kitchen, giraffe or otherwise, so I moved immediately to the cookie rack at the check-out counter - where D.J. said nothing. A tip - a quick "hello" or "Did you find everything you needed?" would have been nice.
He did say, "Have a good day!" as I left, which was great.
Things would get less great.
12: 19pm - 4560 N. E. 14th
This Casey's is one of the coolest looking, at least from the outside.
The huge canopy covers the entire area - pumps and store. It's a very smart, customer-friendly design that I'm sure was financially un-friendly.
Maybe they should have built a smaller canopy, and spent the savings on customer service training.
I came in through the south doors, which made the process slightly different. Since I could get to the bathroom without walking past the clerk, I walked to the food warmer/kitchen area first, moving slowly past the clerk so she'd have an opportunity to greet me.
She didn't care about my "process alteration" - she ignored me.
As did the cook, Kathleen, who silently looked at me while I looked at the pre-made slices of pizza and sandwiches for a few minutes - until she got bored, and walked into the ladies bathroom. I went her way, and entered the men's.
The bathroom was filthy.
There was urine and paper debris scattered across the floor, stains in the sink and the whole room smelled - not that immediate "poo-poo gas" smell but that stale, chronic "Hi! We 're the Bacteria Atom's Family and we've been getting our mail delivered here since 1996" smell.
I came back out, gasping for air that was clean, and found the counter clerk, who was dressed dirty - and I don't mean covered in mud.
Look, I'm a guy and I like looking at inappropriately dressed women, just as much as the next lightly - followed blogger - as long as those women are my girlfriend. Who I love very much, sweetheart!
The 20 something clerk behind the cash register was falling out of whatever low-cut, tight tube-top-type thingy she was wearing under her Casey's smock. She wasn't wearing a name tag - not that I would have noticed, had she been.
Have I told you how great my girlfriend is!!
Bottom line - this girl was dressed for a Maxim shoot and not an eight-hour stint at the Casey's check-out counter.
At least she was polite.
"Is that it?"
Just kiddin. Those were the first - and last - words out of her mouth, to me.
I would have preferred her continued eye-candy silence.
12:40pm - 2849 Euclid (1/2 mile east of 1-235)
No one greeted me as I came in - that has to happen to have a shot at a third mask - that, or "Everything's free for you, Mr. Wright, including gas!"
As I walked towards the men's room, I heard two employees behind the check-out counter, talking about the bathroom.
"Just ran a mop across it. Should be good to go."
Not exactly words that conjure up a Spic N' Span TV commercial with a dancing lady twirling a mop around a sparkling basin and toidy but - okay. (Why do we never see a guy with a mop dancing around his clean bathroom? Oh yeah - because that's ridiculous.)
She must have been talking about the women's restroom.
The men's room had obviously not "just" been cleaned, but it was certainly a huge improvement over where I'd just been. Call it more than passable - nice work, ladies.
Not passable was standing at the kitchen/food warmer counter and not being engaged by Tracy the cook on duty, who was too busy texting to notice me.
Personal cell phones get shut off, especially if someone's primary responsibility is working with the public. If their kids have an emergency or if someone really needs to contact the employee, they can call the store, but otherwise, no cell phones while on company time.
Yep, call me the retail party pooper. Sorry, but that's just how we'd run things at Casey's if it were "Jonnie's."
Cookie in hand, I stepped up to the check-out counter, where Cindy waited.
"Just the cookie?"
Why - do I look like I need to eat more? Thank you! Can I hire you to go with me when I eat at restaurants?
Let's try a "hi" first - and avoiding a statement that could be interpreted as a judgement.
Cindy thanked me as I left - so thank you, Cindy.
1:05pm - 1125 North Hickory Blvd (East University in Pleasant Hill)
Okay, I lied earlier - I'll give a third mask here, even though Kelly didn't greet me as I came in. That's because Jennifer the cook more than made up for it. I'll get to her in a minute.
First, the horrific bathroom.
The basin was filthy, the toilet was dirty and the floor around it was dark. Initially I thought - hoped - that it was dark from normal wear and age.
I grabbed a paper towel, got it wet, tossed it on the floor and slid it with my foot. The dark smeared - it was dirt. Ewww.
Not that I had an appetite at that point but duty called - it was time for a kitchen run.
Initially Jennifer didn't see me - there were two smaller warmers and a cooler on top of the main warmer, and even a head as big as mine was going to be hard to see for anyone working in the kitchen.
But when Jennifer saw me, boom! Her smile lit up her face - she literally beamed.
"Get you something special," she asked behind a beautifully toothy grin, something I'd yet to see at either of the previous two stores.
"I was kind of wanting something for breakfast, but I know you've stopped serving it..."
"No trouble at all!"
I ordered nothing but thanked her for being so kind to me.
Then it was a cookie and onto Kelly, who didn't smile but did say "hi," followed by - you guessed it - "Just the cookie?"
No - how about a 12 gauge shotgun and a quick pedicure?
I left without either, or a thank you from Kelly.
1:30pm - 2150 Indianola Avenue
It was a warm, sunny Saturday and they had their door propped open - sweet!
Business owners - wanna make customers and employees happy? Open your door this time of year - that fresh Spring air will put everybody in your store, in a good mood.
Unless you have a broken ice machine that's louder than a busted chain saw.
Maybe that's why they had the trash barrel holding the door open - so the annoyingly loud sound from the messed up ice machine (or soda machine - my head hurt too much to tell which) would have somewhere to escape.
It didn't help.
This is a newer Casey's with a register in the center facing you as you walk in. The din from the broken thingamajig made it hard to hear anyone, except for Emily the cashier who said nothing to me until I checked out, so it didn't really matter.
I assumed that was the cost of the cookie and not her guess at my age.
Ashley the cook, however, was a total customer service stud.
When I came out of the bathroom (sink okay, toilet dirty, paper debris on the floor) I walked up to the food ordering counter, where Ashley saw me right away.
"What can I get you?"
I went through the "Too bad it's too late for breakfast" bit, to which Ashley smiled and said, "I can whip you up a croissant - or anything you want."
You already gave it to me - thank you, Ashley. Awesome job.
2:01pm - 108 8th Street WDM
Trevor the cashier didn't greet me as I entered, nor did the woman working beside him.
The bathroom was relatively clean. The "Got Slop" sticker beside the "Employees Must Wash Hands" sign on the paper towel dispenser was weird. It was an ad for a company that hauled away debris, apparently for Casey's.
They'd obviously missed a few locations.
There was no one in the kitchen so I went straight to the cookie rack and register, where Trevor said "Just that?"
Instead of thinking some smart-aleky response in my head, I bailed him out, asking him if they had any caffeine free diet Pepsi, since "I didn't see any in the soda rack."
Of course I had. But I'd placed a few bottles of regular Diet Pepsi in front of it, to see if Trevor would actually go back and look for it, or just assume I knew what the heck I was talking about. How devilishly clever of me.
Trevor did what many clerks, Casey's or otherwise, will not do - he walked back to the rack and found what I wanted.
"Somebody put these in the wrong slot."
Yes. Yes, I know. Heh heh heh...
Nice recovery, Trev. Work on a greeting and a thank you, and you'll be managing your own store someday.
2:27pm - 2070 NW 100th, Clive
No greeting initially, but Kim, coming out of the men's bathroom, said to me, "Somebody said it was leaking in there. Looks fine."
Great! If you get any more reports from the "more information than a customer needs to know" department, be sure to give me a shout! I'll be in the leak-free potty!
It was leak-free but dirt-ey.
"Looks fine" means it's presentable to the public. But if Kim had really checked out the bathroom she'd just come out of, she would have seen it was far from "fine," and never let me go in it.
There was a puddle of urine - not water, urine - on the floor by the toilet, which was filthy, as was the sink. The floor was grimy and there was also paper debris scattered around.
Not really so fine, after all.
There was nobody back in the kitchen so I moved directly to the counter, where Kim was waiting for me.
Yep - heard that before.
"Thank you!" and a smile - nice flourish, Kim.
Now please really go check on that leak.
2:42pm - 3935 NW Urbandale Drive, Urbandale (east of Homemakers)
No greeting on the way in from Julia the clerk, who apparently was working by herself, at least right then and there - I didn't see another employee.
The bathroom was okay, except for the cardinal sin - there was dirt on the toilet seat itself.
I grabbed a paper towel, wet it and wiped at the stain, just to make sure. Yep, it smeared. Actual dirt on a toilet seat will make even a guy leave a bathroom - and you thought we'd use 'em no matter what!
Julia was alone - I was right there. So I cleaned the lid and the floor around the toilet base with some more wet paper towels. Not exactly hospital clean, but at least it looked better.
Julia rewarded me...
(note to self: play 7 and 9 in Powerball) But she said it with a very nice smile, and followed up with an even happier "Have a good day!"
2;59pm - 4901 86th Street, Urbandale
There was no greeting from...ahh, fughetaboutit.
The bathroom looked good but was poorly lit, which helped. Perhaps there's a quick, cheap solution to these dirty bathroom issues...
There won't be any quick, cheap solution to the stall door issues.
The side facing the occupant had been trashed, with words scratched into it, then scratches made to obliterate the scratched words. It looked like a horse had been given a paint brush, paint, an easel, and two hours.
When I came back out, John, the cook walked right past me without saying a word. Maybe he was upset about the door.
Matt, the counter clerk who'd said nothing to me as I entered, barely moved his verbal speedometer off "nothing" -delivering that oldie but goodie, "seventy-nine." But it was better than "Just the cookie?" as was "Thank you, sir," as I left - a very nice, respectful exit greeting from Matt.
Nine down, one to go - would the day end on a Hi! note?
3:20pm - the corner of NW Beaver and Johnston Drive, Johnston
I was used to being ignored, as I entered - by now it would have hurt my feelings to hear someone say "Howdy!."
What really hurt was watching employees engage other employees while they ignored me.
But before that offensive employee behavior, there was the offensive bathroom to observe.
The sink was disgusting, and there was a deep ring of grime around the base of the toilet, which magically smeared when I placed Mr. Wet Paper Towel on it and slid him with my foot.
Walking up to the kitchen area, I stood and looked up at the menu on the wall, while Alex the cook, watched me.
And watched. As I stood. And watched. As I stood. I took a step closer to the order counter, just to see if I could at least spook her into grunting - no, she was determined to quietly observe, like she worked for the Great Ape Trust and I was Kanzi the bonobo, checking out a banana. A sheet on a clothes line on a windless day makes more noise.
Then, some words - she can talk!
"Have a good day!"
Wow - thanks but I'm not leaving yet. Actually I...
She was talking to a co-worker, who was walking out the door.
Ouch. Maybe if I'd come in wearing a Casey's smock.
Jessica the cashier to the rescue! She made me feel warm and welcome...
If all you eat is hamburger, you'll start calling it steak.
The Secret Shopping storm was over - 10 stores, 10 cookies, twice as many ambivalent employees and a Prius that smelled like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
Yet besides a lack of customer service basics - only one greeting and two smiles, consistently dirty bathrooms, employees sharing their joy with each other instead of customers - there was also something else.
What I discovered, after talking to over a half-dozen employees, is that Casey's doesn't have ineffective customer service training - there simply isn't any.
There's no corporate customer service mandates, no secret shoppers, no required greeting at the door, no training on smiling and engaging - this, straight from the mouths of Casey's managers and employees.
I can see this lack of emphasis on customer service and training - and do see it every day - with one store and a handful of employees, or maybe with two stores.
But a publicly-traded, $3 billion a year revenue generator, with 1,513 locations and 19,000 employees in 9 states and enough attorneys to fight off a recent hostile take-over bid by Canadian-based Alimentation Couche-Tard, is losing a lot of cash, customers and clout by not implementing and enforcing a customer service training program. Period.
Put another way - business elements that grow by accident, fail by design.
In a lot of small Iowa communities, Casey's is the only gas-and-grocery game in town, which means residents are pretty much stuck with whatever service they get.
But if you live in Des Moines and its suburbs? There's 15 places to buy milk between you and the closest fire hydrant and even the hydrant sells quarts of 1%.
Which is exactly the percentage of Casey's store clerks who greeted me when I first entered the store - 1 out of 10.
When Don Lamberti opened the first Casey's in Boone (the town my family is from) back in 1968, I suspect that he worked his keister off to make sure that every customer was greeted, smiled at and thanked, and that the bathroom was spotless.
The problem Lamberti has - and the problem that all growing companies have - is that the person who built the first store, can't be cloned, only photo-copied.
Which means that every store built and every manager hired from that point forward, has a little more distance from the original owner and a little less ownership in the original Casey's ideal - be nice to customers, keep the bathrooms clean, etc.
Which brings us to today - 1,500 stores - and some very faded copies - later.
Implementing a strict customer service training program would solve many of the chronic CS issues that Casey's faces. It would also hold managers, and their employees, to a higher level of accountability - that means you could expect a smile, and a "hi," and a clean bathroom, consistently, at every Casey's.
After all, that's all CEO Ronald Lamb wants - he said so.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show," Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at email@example.com.
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