While I gained my earliest invaluable work experience on Grandpa’s farm, in the spring of my senior year it was time to try my wings. Beginning part-time in April and full-time the summer after I graduated from high school in 1970 I began working for Cashway (now Carter) Lumber Company. The company was located—still is—on the edge of town and the experience turned out to pay much more than a paycheck. For the next four summers I helped work my way through college slinging lumber and doing inventory (counting each piece of molding in the bin) for two weeks each Christmas break.
I made good friends there. And, believe it or not, I thoroughly enjoyed the physical work the first two years “in the yard,” tossing lumber off boxcars and helping customers fill their orders.
The last two years our manager—“Mr. Horne” to his face and “the Boss” when he wasn’t around—moved me inside behind the counter. I’m not sure why he did this. To my recollection he never said. I do remember he and a couple of other fellows tried to persuade me to opt for a career in lumber, but by that time I was thinking education.
Behind the counter I met more customers and learned more about the human race. I came to understand that most people are pretty nice if you pay any attention to their needs.
I also learned that a few people are jerks no matter or in spite of what you may do for them. Actually, I eventually figured out the jerks are often insecure and unhappy with themselves, not with you, so they’re never satisfied and it’s a no-win situation. For them you Get In, Get Out, and Get Away as soon as you can. Still true with people I periodically meet today.
Four of us lined up behind the counter to receive-all-comers/customers. Saturdays were the most fun because it was non-stop, wall-to-wall all day. I was placed second from the end, Tom on my left, Sherman on my right. Tom was a bit older than me, but young, smart, and on the way up. He later ran the outfit.
Sherman, or “Sherm” as he was called, was maybe 110, or at least it appeared so to me, a college kid. Sherm was skinnier than a telephone, no flag, pole. He knew every builder in six counties and he wrote left-handed, slowly, with precision on our B.C. (Before Computers) order pads. I used to pride myself in how I could process three customers to his one—until I figured out that I was filling orders and he was serving people. Sherm taught me customer relations and he taught me the lumber company business.
True story: Middle-aged man walks in one day and says to me, “I want to build a garage.” I say, “O.K.” He looks at me, I look at him. Then I say, “What do you need?” He says, “I want to build a garage.” That’s it. That’s all he knew. He wanted to build a two-car free-standing garage, and he wanted to purchase everything from foundation up that he needed to get the job done—but he had no clue what materials were what or how much (in truckloads) he was talking about. Now I could sell product but build a garage? My salvation was Sherm. He leaned over and said, “Can I help?” For the next two hours the Sherman-ator and I (mostly writing down what Sherm said) filled this guy’s order, tallied one of my largest sales, and sent the guy away happy. Great Sherm story with a moral that lives on.
Customers can be funny. And we’re laughing with them not at them. Of course we are.
Lady says, “I want to buy a board.” I say, “OK, what kind?” She says, “I don’t know. My husband just told me to come buy some boards.”
Another poor faithful spouse says, “I want to buy 10, 8-foot boards.” I say, “What kind?” She says, “I don’t know. Are there different kinds of boards?”
Back in the day before Map Quest or GPS, directions were even more fun. Customer says, “Tell the truck to go 4 miles down Old Barn Road off Route 20, then turn at the big tree.” Or, “You count 3 red barns and 2 white ones and turn left. Can’t miss it.”
I say, “What’s the name of the road on which the delivery truck should turn?”
“I don’t know. It’s paved.”
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010
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