The Death Of Billie Sue Mafuta


Hello shoppers…

Today we acknowledge, with great sorrow, the passing of one of the all time customer service greats – and of one of the great icons of our time – Billie Sue Mafuta.

Hers may be a name you do not know.

You remember – as we all do – where you were, the moment you heard about the great tragedies of our time;  Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, the passing of Elvis, the Challenger explosion, the collapse of the World Trade Center. These are times and places and events seared into the flesh of our souls, captured forever inside our consciousness.

Billie Sue Mafuta’s death, in retrospect, has been not a blip on our radar.

Yet considering her incalculable impact – not only in the retail sector but in all aspects of our lives – the news of her passing should have for us the blunt force trauma delivered with other tragedies that have befallen us, and as with each, a piece of our sense of our own invincibility and indomitable spirit, ripped from us and left behind – deep in the water under the U.S.S. Arizona monument, aside the graves of Kennedy and The King, buried inside the Space Shuttle’s twisted rubble and among the ruins of the towers.

How could the loss of Billie Sue Mafuta – customer service maven, icon of retail success, mover, shaker and molder of the marketing world – go so unnoticed?

To trace the reason why, let’s revisit the earliest moment of overwhelming national grief and loss, that some of us now alive, lived through and can recall.

December 7th, 1941.


Billie Sue Mafuta, even then, was considered a customer service wiz, a marketing architect who created a blueprint for how counter clerks and salesman and employees in the public eye, should engage consumers. Her power was revered and her influence, immeasurable.

Both would be gravely overshadowed by news that Sunday morning of an attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.

Yet even as we were thrust into the horrors of  war from our own shore, Billie Sue’s impact – in stores and restaurants and churches and places people gathered –  remained strong, and important.  

The war ended. Billie Sue Mafuta survived, and thrived. As a nation, we breathed again.


Then, perhaps our single moment of greatest national tragedy – the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The transformative light of hope we had looked to, was extinguished – in its absence, a slow national descent into darkness.

From that infinitely resonant moment forward – through Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, through rioting and war and Watergate, through the chaos and madness and societal change and cultural awakening of the 60’s and 70’swe would never be quite as happy as we had been, or thought we were.

And the once vibrant nature of Billie Sue Mafuta - her ability to engage, to brighten, to electrifywould also never be as it once was.

To August 15, 1977 – and the death of Elvis Presley.

The voice of a treasured national icon, whose life and history traced our own, was forever silenced. The influence of Billie Sue Mafuta, already waning in retail circles across America, continued to fade.


Then, 1987, the Challenger explosion…

and 14 years later, the terrorist attack on our country, and the collapse of

the Twin Towers.


The war in Iraq followed, as did mounting disillusionment and distrust of our government, religion, our society and each other.

Until today – and the horrible news of the death of Billie Sue Mafuta.

To read about her, to see her image – in old newspapers, history books, black and white pictures and news footage – is to be reminded not only of her immeasurable impact on the retail industry, but of her influence on all of us, everywhere.

All we have left is the words – Billie Sue Mafuta -  which one can purposefully utter slowly into a beautiful smile, allowing each consonant and vowel to tickle and tease the tongue, sliding down its length, resting briefly at its tip, then leaping into space, as a sonnet’s notes might be catapulted from the diving board of a piano key’s hammer, into the ears of the intended recipient, fortunate enough to be in the wake of the waves from the poetic resonance of those words…

Billie Sue Mafuta.

As we look back over the decades of tragedies and unrest that have befallen us who are alive and reading this –  as a country, a planet and a people – our greatest challenge, our most profound struggle, now comes with the responsibility of  keeping our emotional heads above water, and attempting to keep our Billie Sue Mafuta alive.

In spite of it all – perhaps, even, because of it all – we must remember her.

And so, today, please take a quiet moment, and reflect upon Billie Sue Mafuta.  Perhaps by doing so, you can summon a life’s moment from memory – 40 years ago, six years ago, a year ago, yesterday – when you reveled in the joy of what you had, not preoccupied with the sense of what you had lost – and let a beautiful smile, come to your own face.




B I L L I E   S U E  M A F U T A


A  B E A U T I F U L  S M I L E


1940 – ?


If Billie Sue Mafuta is still alive in you, share her with someone today, whose Billie Sue Mafuta appears dead, and gone.



Shop happy. Serve happy. :)


P.S. “Billie Sue Mafuta” is not a person. “She” is an anagram, for “a beautiful smile.”



Jonnie Wright is a customer service trainer and evaluator, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at



Tom Franklin, Next Generation Realty And Great Customer Service: Surviving And Thriving In The Downturn


Hello shoppers…

The likelihood of running into an unsmiling, unfriendly, unengaging, (un) real estate agent – either with Next Generation Realty or Fiddle Dee Dee Realty or any other Realty –  is equal to the odds of running into the International Spacestation with your car.

Yet an occasional house-hunter will tell you, it does happen - which is why Ford just invented air bags that deploy in zero gravity.  

For the rest, there’s no other way they can be, than unfailingly uber-happy, helpful and accommodating… 

“Hello?? Oh, Hi Ralph!! No, you didn’t wake me!! I’m always up at 3am!! Sure we can go look at that house that’s 87 miles away that you didn’t really like but would like to take a quick peek at its basement to compare it to the other seven we looked at yesterday cause you think the woodwork is interesting!! Let me say goodbye to my wife who has pneumonia, grab my coat and come pick you up way over there on the other side of town where you live, in this blizzard!! This will be great!!”

 …if they expect to make a dime in a career that consistently asks human beings to unpry their tight-fisted hands from around hard-earned $150k and up, which is: 

A) about as natural a human act as a baby pulling a hard-earned pacifier out of its mouth, tossing it aside in its crib and saying, “Ya know what? This just ain’t doin it for me anymore.”

B) especially when the baby paid $150,000 for the pacifier, and it’s now worth $1.57.  

That “baby to pacifier-cost ratio” is called “the economic downturn.” That analogy is called “the stupidest 52 words you’ll read between now and Christmas.

Bottom line – real estate agents already possessed the greatest customer service skills of any retail profession, which are now double attached garage important with the fallen house market.

Which is what Tom Franklin, President and founder of Next Generation Realty, told me real-cently, in more cogent terms.


Tom started the company 16 years ago because of what he says was a need in the Des Moines market for “a price feature – discount company, so the marketplace could spend less money to sell a property.” Thus was born the “flat-fee” concept.

But it’s never just about cost.

I asked Tom, flat (fee) out, what’s the most important quality a potential real estate agent can have.

“Empathy,” he said.

Man I’m tired of being right all the time.

That word should be carved into the walls of every break room of every retail store in Des Moines.

Wait! It was a metaphor! It was a metaphor! (The JC Mall already hates me enough as it is…)

Tom continued to carve up my question.

“The most important skills are communication skills, and empathy –  for the home buyer, the seller, for both. That’s what all great agents possess.”

 I asked Tom if it’s harder today to find people who have that level of empathy, than in the past.

“I can’t say that I’ve noticed that for sure,” he hesitated. “That is something that I suspect is there but I can’t say I have personal experience noticing it.”

Those candidates who are empathetic enough to join the ranks of Next Generation Realty agents, participate in rigorous training on all aspects of the sale, including the presentation.

“We go out with our agents so that they can see us give a presentation – that’s a one-on-one practice,” said Tom, “But then we listen to them do it as well. It’s more of the old-fashioned training, as opposed to a group or video classroom.”

He elaborated – with words I think are so important and eloquent, I decided to give them their own blockquote:


Real estate is in some ways still an old-fashioned business and the one on one contact with the customer – so people don’t want to do things over the computer or over the phone as much in real estate because it’s the biggest transaction the buyer or seller is going to have.


The most effective tweet is a handshake.

As for training interpersonal skills vs. finding them, Tom was adamant.

“You can’t teach people to be happy,” he said. “People either are good sales people or they’re not. We can teach them the nuts and bolts of it, the transaction, but we can’t teach them good communication skills – they either like people and are good at communicating, or they don’t, and aren’t.”

Hire happy. Train skills.

I’m voting for Tom for Governor.



As for governing the company during the housing downturn, Tom says that its aftermath has created a recruitment hole you could fit a priced-to-sell four bedroom ranch with master suite, hardwood floors, art nooks, granite countertops, wet bar and attached garage, into.

There are a lot of people who have gotten out of the business,” he said. “And as the market is now starting into an upswing, there are less people to handle those transactions – so now’s a great time to come work for Next Generation Realty. Because we’re going to get a lot of people coming to us because they need to sell their home but can’t afford to pay that six or seven percent commission.”

Potential agents, by the way, who need to be happy.

The skills? They’ll train.

Call Tom at 224-9900, if you dig houses, can’t stop smiling, and enjoy helping others do the same.


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


Mike, Kum And Go, Catching Happiness And Paying It Forward


Hello shoppers…

At first glance, no one would mistake Mike working the counter at the east side Kum & Go at 2110 Guthrie Ave just off I-235, for Jerry Lewis, Larry The Cable Guy, assorted members of Congress or Triumph The Insult Comic Dog.  

Not Mike


He’s just Mike – Mike, for us to poop on. (Miss the joke? Probably better skip a few paragraphs – maybe pick it back up with “And the unimaginable power of…”)

For both of you still here – most of all, he’s just Mike the Kum & Go guy.

That’s the sum of the parts of the whole Mike that I, and now you, both of you, know.

Mike works at Kum & Go, he’s probably in his 20’s and he was funny for about two minutes, last Saturday afternoon.

Something magical happened, inside the circle


And the unimaginable power of…Hi! Welcome back!…those simple 120 seconds, has now permanently altered the landscape of a thousand human souls.

First, a quick glance at the research that says I’m right and that the above sentence isn’t ridiculous.

Results from two dozen University studies – UCLA, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Hamburger University at Oak Brook – suggest that happiness is as transferable as an iron-on, cooties or cold feet upon a previously warm backside.


Cough in your arm - but laugh out loud


M. Farouk Radwan, a human behavior expert, gives it to us straight when he says that humans “usually absorb some of the emotions of the person we are watching or listening to and then experience a change in our own mood even though nothing happened to us.”

Right as rain, M.

Yet the key here is “the emotions of the person we are watching.” In other words, that person is feeling how they’re feeling, which is about them – but somebody who happens to be in the vicinity of their outward expression of feeling, can also get a little sompin-sompin, too.

What do we all do when we see a baby smile? We smile. That’s transference. The kid doesn’t know it, doesn’t care – he just wants changed.

“Happy hops from head to head

‘cept when a frown does make it dead

til one more happy thing is said,

then happy hops from head to head.”


Which is what happened Saturday at Kum & Go – lots of happy head hoppin.

Mike’s greeting at the K&G counter – “Is this it?” (ow, my head) -harbingered nothing so life-altering that I’d be babblin about it three days yonder hence. 

Yep. Just the caffeine-free diet Pepsi, young whipper-snaper.

“Dollar seventy-three.” 

I obliged him – by pulling two large handfuls of pennies from my pockets and dropping them on the waist-high red formica surface like slime dumped on contestants of Nickelodeon’s Figure It Out…

See, here’s the problem.

It’s really embarrassing for a middle-aged man to be forced to scrounge up all the loose change he can track down in-between sofa cushions and car seats like he’s in his 20’s again living in a college dorm room at UNI, because he can’t find his ATM card and never carries cash but just has to have a soda in the next 16 seconds or that man will surely die!!!

Six, in-a-hurry-and-that’s-why-we’re-shoppin-at-a-convenience-store, dummy! patrons were behind me and my five pounds of copper. A man, 20 years my junior and with his whole living-off-his-parents-til-he’s-30 life ahead of him, was in front of me.

Change was flying off the table and didn’t care.

Uh…hey, I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I feel like I had to break my piggy bank, like some dumb desperate 20-year-old loser.”

I smartly said to the 20-year-old.

I jumped to save coins from tumbling to the floor with one hand, and began miscounting the pennies by twos, with the other, while the guy I’d just punched in the face, looked on.


"How much was it again?"


Silence, ‘cept the sound of sliding coins, and the shame in my voice.

“…forty-two, forty-four, forty-six…”

“You mean, dumb like me?” said the bemused Mike, whose smile I was too busy counting change to see.

This shouldn't take long...


“Dollar forty five…forty six…forty seven…….uh….”

The counting stopped – typical, when the coins run out.

At that point I was in prison.

I’d taken two minutes to scatter and count out $1.47 for a $1.73 bottle of caffeine-free diet Pepsi – in convenience store time, two minutes is six days. And now I was short.

Any of you ticked-off patrons behind me wanna lend me a quarter, or should I ask the 20-year-old loser?  

"Uhhh...anybody lend me some change back there?"


See, Mike could have went a lot of ways here – with the growing line of impatient patrons and the growing pile of pennies and the growing-more-absurd-looking-by-the-minute insult specialist at the counter.

Instead, from the peripheral vision of my bent-over perch, I glanced up in time to see Mike reach into his pocket, pull something from it that I prayed was not a bat, and toss it on the table.

“Let’s call it even, old man.”

Three shiny nickels stood out on the mound o’ pennies.

Holy Thomas Jefferson. He just paid it forward – for real.

Not only was this kid making up my Kum & Go Debt with his own jack, he was letting me off the financial hook entirely. Did Kyle Krause know this?

I leaned up at the waist – to see the beautiful, beaming smile of my banker. 

Mike began to laugh. I joined him.

“Hey man…thanks a lot, you saved my [embarrassment]“

“No problem,” Mike chuckled, “Have a great day.”

And so I have – every day since then.

The lesson that Mike reminded me about – deceptively simple, yet of magnitude 8.0 on the emotional Richter Scale – is that happy is as happy does, and the tremors emanating out from our own happiness, can shake the ground of others in close proximity.

A Harvard study from 2008, showed this clearly.

“The study of more than 4,700 people who were followed over 20 years found that people who are happy or become happy boost the chances that someone they know will be happy. The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation, elevating the mood of that person’s husband, wife, brother, sister, friend or next-door neighbor.”

Or convenience store customer.

Hire happy. Train skills.

Mike’s clearly a happy guy. I’m a happy guy, too. And Mike being willing to spend some of his happiness currency on me, filled up my happy wallet, and has made me happier and more willing to spend my new-found happy money on others.

Like you, kind reader – with this story.

And hopefully, the 73 people I’ve engaged and spread my Mike-powered happiness to, since, and the 73 people who each of those 73 people have talked to since me, are happier as well.

Ultimately, how many can feel the ripples of our joy?


Do the math, and imagine the possibilities – of the story with a little change, that changed the world and gave it a happy ending. 


 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

Interstate Batteries – Amping Up The Customer Service


Hello shoppers…


At first glance, you wouldn’t expect a dinky, non-descript retail hut hiding in the shadow of a 200,000 square foot hut-eater, to offer top-notch customer service worthy of Queen Nefertiti, and be thriving to boot. Especially not when the place is pimping just one thing – batteries, for the love of Eveready.

Don’t most people, like, just buy ‘em at the grocery store?

No! said the monkey to the battery-operated chimp. In fact that off-the-hizzle combo of  “extreme” customer service and encyclopedic product knowledge has rocketed Interstate Batteries at 1090 73rd street (officially in Clive, but it doesn’t feel like it) into the retail stratosphere, as one of the great customer service stories in Des Moines.

A company that "gets it"


It wasn’t always great and it wasn’t always Interstate Batteries.

The 1546 square foot apartment-sized space was originally occupied by Battery Patrol, and before that, probably cows.

What it has become in the interveening 15 years is a dynamic blueprint for how a business, any business, should do their business.

Make no mistake: This is a corporate-structured company with a corporate-sized customer service mandate, handed down on high by Interstate Batteries’ home office in Dallas, where the company first put down roots in the 50’s.

Today, over 1,400 employees nationwide follow the Interstate Batteries Extreme Customer Experience Pledge, (or probably face certain death) which is proudly displayed on the wall of every store. (which are in all 50 states)

“Because we want you as a customer for life, our team members will provide you with extreme customer service,  offer a greeting and handshake within 15 seconds, provide an introduction and a business card, communicate special offers and promotions, assess your needs, present the best solution at the best price and provide each customer with a return visit incentive. If we don’t meet this standard, please let us know. Thank you.”


Wow. These people do not mess around.

What I also won’t mess around with is quoting the Interstate Batteries’ employees I interviewed, by name. That’s because they were unable to secure corporate approval before this blog went to post. I’m naughty, but never vulgar.

What was vulgar was how well-organized and uber-clean the store was when I first visited. You could have eaten off the floor – I had meat and bread in the car…

After asking me to get up off the floor,  “Pat” told me that keeping the store spotless and easy to navigate is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce in the entire Dagwood sandwich of customer service training at Interstate Batteries – which hits new employees whoop upside their heads the second their greenhorn feet hit the IB floor.

“The first couple days you work here,” he said, “you train, greet everybody when they come in the door, give everybody a business card, introduce yourself, see what people need – you’re taught that from the beginning.”

The training tools include a handbook and DVD, which lays out what’s expected in terms of customer service and product knowledge.

“It takes awhile to get through it all,” said Pat. “There are [customer service] scenarios on the computer training [on the DVD] – it’s pretty normal.”

Normal? I wanted to drag Pat across the street and show him that extreme customer service is about as  “normal” as a celebrity without rehab. Yet that’s how he described it – not rehab, he seemed sober – very matter-of-factly.

Which is how the handful of employees at Interstate Batteries go about their business – answering phones and engaging customers – in very workman-like fashion.

And they do work – hard. Each of the half-dozen times I visited the store, the parking lot and store was packed. Hmmm – guess people don’t just buy batteries as after-thoughts in grocery store check-out lines.

Yet the staff manages to both keep up and maintain the customer service mandate – in part because they are overstaffed, by design.

“We try to let the people know who are coming in, that we know they’re there.” said Pat. “We don’t keep them waiting without a hi. It’s greeting, handshake, business card, thank you.”

This will start my TV, right?


I don’t own a flashlight and wanted to buy a dozen D’s. My Prius uses a $3,500 Panasonic Metal Case Prismatic Module Hybrid array and I still had battery envy. Hmm – better buy one of those IB Mega Tron II beauties because – well because ya never know when the, uh, power might go out and, um, ya gotta, like, hook up the TV to a, like,  boat battery. Or somethin.

Yet don’t think for a minute that Interstate Batteries is willing to rest on their terminals. They’re actually working on implementing a higher level of customer service.

Outrageous Customer Service is the company’s new motto,” said Pat. Sounds like we’re getting dangerously close to Freaky Friendly.

What does the new motto mean?

“Just going out of our way to meet the needs of the people who come in.”

Yep – that’s outrageous, Pat. And preposterous. And outlandish. And  another 15 words-deep into the thesaurus. What are you crazy people thinking?

I decided to be the outrageous chicken who crosses the outlandish road to get to the other battery, and visited the next-door big-box store – to see how preposterous Interstate Batteries’ prices looked compared to the price-cutting global dominator.

After being ignored for 15 minutes in the Tire and Lube section…

Never mind. What’s the point.

What I discovered was a 4-pack of Energizer AA batteries was $3.50 at All-Mart Way, $4.99 at Interstate Batteries.

That seems to fall short of “preposterous.”

Pay a little more. Get a lot more.


So – are you willing to pay an extra buck and a half to have a working remote or accurate wall clock, along with the extra extra extra extra customer service that goes with shopping at the dinky hut that employees and management have turned into a shining retail beacon on a hill?

I thought so. Now pass the mayo.


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

John, The YMCA, Great Customer Service And The Power Of Autism


Hello shoppers…    

Our attitude about shopping – for stuff, for services, for needs, for wants, for fun, for drain cleaner – is influenced in part by our customer service experiences, which we unconsciously lay end to end, sew together with stitches of time and hold up to our face, to determine if the subsequent quilt suggests it would be fun to go to the mall, or just be happy with the pants we’ve got, thank you.    

While most of our experiences in the retail and service world are average and unmemorable – with some falling to bad, some rising to good – there are, on those precious few occasions, the great.    

This is one of those. More accurately, this is a customer service story about a great man.     

The basics; His name is John Wier. He is 21, graduated Urbandale High School, lives with his parents, likes Beethoven and Linkin Park, is employed at the Walnut Creek YMCA, picks up towels, washes handrails and joyfully greets Y patron after Y patron with an unabashed level of selflessness that’s like watching Mother Teresa tend to lepers.  And I’m one of the lepers because I’m also a member.    

The un-basic: John is autistic.    

I’ll get to that in a moment.    

I first became aware of John about six months ago as I stood naked in the men’s locker room at the Walnut Creek Y, minding my own naked business.    

“What did you work out on today?”    

I turned around, startled by the voice behind me.    

Standing there was a young man, wearing glasses and an official Y shirt and badge, hands on a towel cart, smile on his face, patiently waiting for my answer to a completely reasonable question that made me feel unreasonably uneasy. To paraphrase Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, who is this guy?    


“I haven’t worked out yet.”    

“So – so what are you going to work out on today?’    

“I think I’m going to do aerobics. “    

“So you’re going to do aerobics? What kind of aerobics, treadmill or elliptical or what?”    

“I think I’ll do the elliptical.”    

“Elliptical? Neat.”    


And away he neatly went – rolling off to another aisle of the locker room to ask other half-clad dudes the same questions in the same way while he picked up discarded towels, until he’d run out of towels and middle-aged overweight men to engage – at which point he rolled out of the room, humming to himself as he happily pushed his dirty towel cart down the hallway.    

Who was this guy?    

Whoa. I immediately knew that John was a better man than I was. I’d be far too self-conscious to turn to a fellow locker room occupant and ask him “What’s up?” And I’d tell people to pick up their own wet, filthy, disgusting towels, were they born in a barn?    

There were other things that set John apart – an unusual cadence to his speech, a very direct, persistently inquisitive manner and most amazing, an apparent absence of walls and self-awareness. John just really didn’t seem to care about what you might think of him because he was far too busy caring about you – he was going to be nice to you and engage you and if you didn’t like it, that was your wet towel.      

I liked John right away. He was the living, breathing embodiment of the perfect customer service provider – he could have taught one of my classes.    

Yet he appeared to be – autistic? How could that be? Was there a connection between his autism and his outgoing ways? Weren’t autistics supposed to be more walled off, more shy?    

I wanted, needed, to find out more about him.    

Fully clothed, I visited with Sue Johnson, executive director of the Walnut Creek Y. Yes, she said, John had a mild form of autism and asperger’s disease, autism’s next door neighbor.    

Wow. Jaw-dropping Thomas Edison just discovered electricity wow.     

My image – perhaps yours – of an autistic person was, up to that point, of someone barely able to function in our “normal” world, a perception framed in part by popular media – Rainman and Forest Gump and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.     

My original "enlightened" view of autism


I need to cancel my Blockbuster membership. I also wanted to find out more about autism, before I reached out to John.    

I went to Steve Muller, (who has no connection with John) the executive director of The Homestead in Pleasant Hill, an agency which provides residential and vocational options for those with autism.    

First, what is autism?    

“It’s a neurobiological disorder that interferes with how people gather and organize their information,” Steve told me. “And that causes problems in communication and social skills.”    

When I told Steve about John, he was impressed. “To have an [autistic] person who is succeeding, working at the YMCA, is a real special treat,” said Steve. “If they’re succeeding at building those social relationships, they’re overcoming significant challenges”    

Could John’s autism actually make him better at customer service?    

Steve hesitated. Autism “impacts everyone uniquely,” he said. “People with autism normally have a very hard time understanding communication skills and structuring things in a way that makes sense to them.”    

John had taken that template, wadded it up and tossed it into the dirty towel bin.    

“It may make it easier for autistics to be direct in their communication,” said Steve. “Brutally honest may be easier.”    

Yet there was nothing brutal about John’s forthrightness. It was surprising, yes – but once you got over the shock of actually being spoken to by another human being whom you didn’t know, you couldn’t help but begin to think that…well, that it was you who had the malady.    

I needed to talk to this guy.    

John was very open to sitting down and discussing his life, his experience at the Y and his autism.    

“I started out as a volunteer in the fall of August 2008 (through Iowa Workforce Development) then was hired on in November,” he told me as we sat in the Y’s conference room, along with Sue Johnson. “Sue noticed my work and decided to hire me on.”    

Sue smiled and jumped in. “Jonathan cane in and took pride in his work. He was a good team player, always wanted to work more, wasnt afraid to ask questions. You couldn’t have a bad day when John was working. He made everyone feel welcome.”    

I asked John if he knew that he made other people feel good.     

“I want to make other people feel good,” he said. “It’s all part of what I do here and part of customer service here.”     

There are some things that John struggles with. “My typing skills are slow.” Join the club, kid. Working with guest passes can also throw John a bit.    

Yet when it comes to engaging Y patrons, John is off the membership hizzle.    

Had he always been so good?    

“When I first started,” he said, “I don’t think I talked to customers as much. But after awhile I got better at it.”    

John’s left better in his dust. Why is it important to greet people and ask them questions?    

“It’s just to show a good work ethic and to show good customer service and to be professional. I always take people directly to what they’re looking for.”     

I asked Sue if Jonathan was trained in these skills.     

Her answer blew me away.    

“I think he brought it in with him,” she said. “John knows from working at the front desk that it’s important to us, but I think it’s something John has always had. I don’t think it’s something that would be teachable to a lot of people. A lot of credit also goes to his parents and how they raised him.”    

Is John ever afraid to go up and talk to patrons?    

“At times I can be. If I see people horsing around in the hallways, rough-housing, then I’m a little afraid to say something.”    

As are all of us, John. When a nine-year old is running backwards and dribbling a basketball on a treadmill, we should all just try to ignore him.    

I asked John what most of us might consider a loaded question – does he like cleaning?    

“I do, because I want to make sure that the Y stays clean, so people don’t get sick.” You’re hired. “When I pick something up in the men’s room I always ask, ‘Is this yours?’ before I pick it up.”     

Sure. We do not want me and my fellow locker mates running around the facility, as is. Believe me.     

I told John I could hear him humming while he works – what’s the song?    

I like the classical pieces by Beethoven and stuff like that. I’ll also sing a song by a band called Lincoln Park.”  John hummed part of it for me, then went right into the easily recognizeable “dah-du-dah-du-dah-du-dah-du dum” of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.   


I could not stop smiling.    

Then I got to the money question. What does John know about autism?    

“I know one thing. There are like different forms. I have asperger’s, it’s a type of autism but more the high functioning type.” John described it as being able to verbalize, to talk clearly so that others could understand him.    

What can’t you do, that someone without autism, can do?    

“I can’t do math very well.    

Get in line, kid.    

Did John think he’d be as good at customer service, if he didn’t have autism?    

“Yes, I would be a little bit better at least and I would try to implement more things. I’d probably be on the phone more.”    

John will likely be on the phone quite a lot on April 18th, fielding congratulatory calls – he’ll be turning 22 that day, three days after tax day, when being bad at math no longer matters.     

The Walnut Creek Y – at 11,500 members, it’s the largest in the Des Moines Association – will be having a birthday party that night for John.    

Sue Johnson would prefer they honor twins.    

“I wish I could clone John,” she said. “We pride ourselves on customer service – it sustains our membership. And John’s unique skills are a very important part of that.”    


John is unique, in many ways.  As someone with autism, he is one of the 1-2 out of a 1,000 people who has it, and one of 6 out of a 1,000 with an autism spectrum disease like asperger’s.    

He is also unique among autistics – he is high functioning, engaging and outgoing.    

Yet there is a third category that puts John in the most rarified air of all. He smiles at and engages everyone – even while being burdened with a disease that wants him to do the opposite.    

That means he’s like an olympic pole vaulter being asked to jump over two walls simultaneously – the self-protection walls of fear and mistrust of strangers we all have as human beings – unless you’re from Turkey, where they kiss and hug everybody. And the anti-social walls common among austics, which drive many to lives of isolation.    

When I put John’s world against our own, I begin to understand that it’s us who are living a burdened life, not him. We are stuck behind walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from being hurt, while John floats over his on angel’s wings, accompanied by the soft, soothing strains of Fur Elise.    

Those of us who remain tethered to the ground, can only look up, watch, listen and smile – but no longer wonder, who is this guy?    



Now, we know.    


Note: The Homestead is also celebrating a birthday, with their upcoming 15th anniversary party in May. To find out more about The Homestead and the services they provide, contact Steve Muller at 515-967-4369.

Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and radio show host. “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show” airs Saturday mornings from 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at

The Store Clerk’s Smile, That Saved A Life


Hello shoppers…

I often tell retail employees that their smile, joy and happy engagement of consumers can make them heroes to their customers, even life savers.

The frequent reaction is eye-rolling disbelief.

Just in case your own eyes might be moving slightly upward, here is the proof that gives my theory its foundation  - the true story of how great customer service saved someone’s life.

First, some perspective.

It may seem pollyanish of me, or you, to believe in The Perpetual Circle of Retail Joy –  that happy employees giving happy customer service leads to happy shoppers leads to happy owners leads back to happy employees leads to happy shoppers leads to happy owners leads to happy everybody leads to a happy Earth whose sphere shatters, curving up at the poles, sagging at around the Yucatan Peninsula and forming a wedge-shaped grin.

Dreamers, indeed, we may be. Yet one point to our belief is inarguably rooted in reality – happy, matters.

This appeared in yesterday’s U.S. News And World Report online, reposted from the December 2006 print edition:

Nearly a dozen studies show that happier people live longer. They’re also less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes, and pain from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Plus, Carnegie Mellon researchers last month found that people who express positive emotions come down with fewer colds and flus after being exposed to the viruses than those who express negative emotions like anger, sadness, or stress.


Being happy, we’d agree, is a good thing.

It also takes little to connect the impact of our own happiness to that of others  – the emotional equivalent of “pay it forward.” There’s ample research to support it, including a recent joint study from The University of California and Harvard, which found:

When someone gets happy, that person’s friend experiences a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy. A friend of that friend experiences a nearly 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance of happiness. That means a stranger’s good mood can do more to lift your spirits than a $5,000 raise, which only increased happiness 2 percent, [according to the study.]


Pay it forward, then, works. Happy employees can touch customers with their smile and their joy. Great customer service can have an impact beyond a store’s four walls and retail shelves.

But what is its potential? What is the true reach of customer service? How far can a smile, go? 

This is that story.


Her name is Kay - a middle-aged woman who never married and had a child, had little family and fewer friends, worked hard and lived alone in the midwest.

She lived an atypical life, especially for her times.  Remaining single, she abandoned the standard of the day – getting married, raising a family – and focused instead on a military career that took her to Texas and the Air Force in the 60’s and later as the first woman in Iowa and second in the U.S. to achieve Spec 5 status in the National Guard, in communications. Kay was a trail-blazer, a “Mary Tyler Moore” who even had an MTM-style hat in her closet.

Kay also had a wicked sense of humor and a strong sardonic wit that could cut the less verbally skilled to shreds. She enjoyed pop music, danced easily, could drink and keep up with the fellas, loved to sing and had a contagious smile and laugh. It wasn’t a great life, she would suggest, but it was good – good enough for her.

Yet as time passed, her strong smile and infectious laugh began to fade, with a pulling away from friends, a string of unfulfilling jobs, the death of her mother, a life lived in small town isolation that provided little opportunity for socialization, a distant child, little family – and a dark secret that was slowly overwhelming her, like a pool cover being pulled across while a swimmer attempts laps.

There are not enough adjectives in a thesaurus to describe the relentless evil of mental illness. 

Ask about the experience of any friend, family member or total stranger who has been touched first-hand by it and you’ll witness a narrowing of the brow, a pursing of the lips and a lowering of the voice. If joy can be passed along through our smiles, so can the grief expressed on the faces of those who share the personal experience of helplessly watching someone go insane.  

Eventually the dimming light of Kay’s once bright joy no longer kept the dark demons and voices at bay and away, at the fringe of her shadows. Unencumbered, they began their inexorable march forward, towards her.


Kay began taking rambling notes on imagined threats - a plot involving the military and her co-workers. She wore a hidden recorder to work, to “catch” employees talking about her. The ironic fact that she worked for the Post Office – a seemingly fertile ground for mental instability – provided a small humourous outlet for family, in an otherwise increasingly heart-wrenching view of one woman’s descent into madness.

Witnessing Kay’s out of control rantings and ravings – voices from a VCR, strangers following her, co-workers plotting against her, thinking someone was trying to kill her – was for those still close to her, like watching someone you love being tortured by a being only they can see.

For Kay, it eventually led to an involuntary committal and a diagnosis of manic depression and paranoid delusional schizophrenia – now called delusional disorder

After a strong concoction of Lithium, tranquilizers and other psychopharmaceuticals was prescribed, she was released and began living the listless, zombie-like life of a paranoid schizophrenic – the cost of making sure imagined voices and real paranoia don’t make people do things like hurt themselves, or others.

Then, one day, a breakthrough, delivered by an unlikely hero – a convenience store clerk.

About four months after her committal, Kay had filled her tank at her small town’s only gas station and walked into the store to pay for it when she was immediately smiled at and greeted by the clerk, who struck up a conversation with her. Kay and “Mary” talked for 10 minutes – the first real conversation she’d had, Kay would say later, since leaving the hospital.

That conversation led to another, and another, until a mini-friendship developed between the two women. Kay began sounding more herself on the phone, noted those closest to her, her voice, more authentic, more present, more there. Maybe she’d turned a corner. Maybe the demons had been permanently relegated to the shadows.

Then, as the comedians say, she went off her meds.

I remember the day she told me.

When my mother – Kay Wright – told me over the phone that she’d stopped taking the Lithium and everything else, I smiled – at first. The woman I was listening to on the other end sounded like my mother, for the first time in a very long time, and that fact was enough to blind me to the ramifications of her actions. The stranger she’d become to me, who I’d distanced myself from – the insanely shrieking, incomprehensibly mumbling, uncontrollably sobbing and stony stoned-out silent stranger – had been replaced.

In her place was, well…it was Mom.

This was the woman who would tell my kid ears dirty jokes normally reserved for military personnel, then “march” me off to bed with a silly cadence. This was the “cook” who taught me to put hunks of Velveeta on a cheap frozen pizza so it would “taste more gourmet.” I heard the adventureist I remembered, who’d hiked from our distant balcony seats to somehow within four feet of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium stage, charming the body guards of a bloated Elvis Presley in to letting her take pictures of the King – close enough to make out his corset.

This was my mom.  Who had gone off her meds. While a random smile and a laugh with a convenience store clerk in my hometown of Cambridge, Iowa, had apparently done what six bottles of pharmaceuticals, hard-core therapy and a week on the fourth floor of Mary Greeley Hospital in Ames, could not.

It had seemingly brought her back to me, to us, to the world – and the world back to her.   

Yet when she told me she’d stopped taking her medications, I was uneasy – happy, but uneasy.

About a month later, on January 20th, 1990, a call on the phone and a knock at my door, verified that unease.

My mom had put on her favorite pink bathrobe, walked barefoot through knee-deep snow into the darkness behind her trailer to her pre-selected location, tied a section of clothes line rope that dangled from a tree, tightly around her neck, pulled up her legs, and held them there, until the demons and darkness let go of her heart.

Life is not a straight, predictable line. It is a curve – in the shape of a smile, if we choose to step back and see it. What power that smile possesses, none of us can say with complete certainty. But a life without it is certainly a straight line between life and death – and that’s no life at all.

I have looked back over the moments of those years and the trail of tears that lay alongside them, like breadcrumbs tossed by a child as they walk, to later help them find their way home. I have followed those tears back along the curve of my life’s journey to this moment, to share with you this true story - the story of the smiling store clerk who shared a laugh and saved my mother’s life…if only for a while.

In a life designed by God to only last awhile for all of us – that’s good enough for me.



Smile. You never know whose life you might save.


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of “The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show,” which airs Saturday mornings from 8-9am, on 1350 KRNT. Email him at

The Smiling Faces Of Des Moines Retail


Hello shoppers… 

A very famous person often said, “Bring your smile with you or stay where you’re at.”  That very famous person was my grandma, who is famous only to me but that’s enough. 

She tended to offer these sage words of advice to me at moments throughout my childhood when putting a smile on my puss was the absolute bottom rung last thing on my “to do” list. Over time I learned to follow her advice – first because it was safer to do so, later because it became a habit and now because I’ve grown into the man my grandma wished me to be. 

For those who stand on their feet for 12 hour stretches serving the not always patient public for not always substantial compensation, the idea of smiling may also be somewhere other than top-of-mind. Yet when we as shoppers are greeted by a grinning host, clerk, server, greeter or any employee working the front of the store, it is transformative to our heart, like a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer, wrapped round our soul. And so those on the other side of the retail counter who consistently smile at us, should be rewarded – with our personal thanks and our shopper’s loyalty.   

Here, then, is a tribute to the smilers among us - 24 employee smiles during a 24 hour retail journey throughout Des Moines, plus a few sage utterings on the subject, from people who likely learned the words from their grandmother. 

I dare you not to smile back. :) 


“Before you put on a frown, make sure there are no smiles available.” – Jim Beggs 


Abbey, Romantix

“Everyone smiles in the same language.” – Unknown 


Allan, G & L Clothing

“Smile – sunshine is good for your teeth.” – Unknown 


Amy and Linda, Midwest Connect

“A smile is the universal welcome.” -Max Eastman 


Carrie, Kum and Go

“Smile – it increases your face value.” – Unknown 


Chastity, Gamers

“A smile is something you can’t give away – it always comes back to you.” – Unknown 


Chelsea and Brittney, Regis Hairstyles

“If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it.” -Andy Rooney 


Chelsea, Wynsong Theater

 “Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” -Mark Twain 


Deborah and Christina, YMCA

“People seldom notice old clothes if you wear a big smile.” -Lee Mildon 


Gentrie, Quik Trip

“You haven’t lost your smile at all – it’s right under your nose. You just forgot it was there.” – Unknown 


Harry, The Smoke Shop

“If you see a friend without a smile, give him one of yours.” -Unknown 


Jake and Jazz, Shock City

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”              -Lee Buscaglia 


Jenny, McDonalds

“A smile happens in a flash, but its memory can last a lifetime.”       -Unknown 



June, Artistic Bead

“The robb’d that smiles, steals something from the thief.” -William Shakespeare 


Kate and Nicole, All Play

“You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face. And show the world all the love in your heart. Then people gonna treat you better, you’re gonna find, yes you will, that you’re as beautiful as you feel.” -Carole King 


Miriam, Embassy Suites

“What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. They are but trifles, to be sure; but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.” -Joseph Addison 


Nicki, Casey's

“Smile! It irritates people.” -Unknown 


Richard, Taco Johns

“Children learn to smile from their parents.” -Shinichi Suzuki 


Robert, Petco

“Smile at each other, smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you grow up in greater love for each other.” -Mother Teresa 


Sandy, H&R Block

“A smile is nearly always inspired by another smile.” -Unknown 


Sarah, Executive Cleaners

“A smile will gain you ten more years of life.” -Chinese Proverb 


Shieanne, Harrison's Sports

“The shortest distance between two people is a smile.” -Unknown 


Steph, O'Reilly Auto Parts

“Smile! If you can’t lift the corners, let the middle sag.” -Unknown 


Tanya, Simply For Giggles

“A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.” -Charles Gordy 


Tim, Book Trader

Have a nice day! 



Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and radio show host. “The Unsecret Shopper” can be heard Saturday mornings from 8-9am, on 1350 KRNT. Email him at

Freaky Friendly – Fareway And Quik Trip


Hello shoppers…

Any company that wants to compete for our hard-earned drachmas and doubloons, can’t offer so-so-stinky customer service and expect to get them, not in this so-so-stinky economy. You don’t bring a butter knife to a gun fight unless you’re a GUESS model shooting a “West Side Story” themed ad rip-off.

Some companies, however, bring customer service howitzers – and shoppers are thankful for the heavy artillery. Here’s a peek at two such gun-slinging retail heros.


Fareway in Norwalk – Bringing It Freaky Friendly


Talk to Brian Greiner, store manager for Fareway in Norwalk, and you immediately want to rub his head, toss him a nickel and tell him to scoot and go buy himself a wad of Bazooka. That’s because the youthful-looking 32-year-old Greiner appears closer to 14, the age he started bagging groceries and got his first taste of the biz.

“I have a lot of family who work in the grocery store business,” said Greiner when I chatted with him last week. “I started young and just never left.”

That career arc took him through several grocers around Des Moines, including one who emphasized the front end of the store.

“You learn the importance of personalizing your service,” says Greiner. “That’s my expectation with this crew – and they’re awesome.”

The Norwalk Fareway opened in August 2007 with a young Greiner at the helm and an even younger staff under his wing, which makes what they’ve accomplished even more impressive; creating an exceptional customer service culture that Greiner calls “Freaky Friendly.”

It was a term he first heard during a seminar presentation by nationally renown marketing guru Harold Lloyd, who works with the Iowa Grocers Association.

Lloyd teaches that if you’re going to claim to be good, be the best,” says Greiner. Clearly the staff at Fareway in Norwalk has taken the message to heart.

I discovered this, and everything else about Norwalk’s Fareway, entirely by accident as I stumbled in one day searching for emergency mushrooms and less emergency toothpaste. The very-young girl at the check-out counter wasn’t your typical ambivalent teen, killing time till her shift ended and the lip gloss and Miley Cyrus began.

Instead, she blew me away. “How are you doing today? Doing anything exciting? Have you had a good day?” Wow – I’ve had dates that were less engaging.

When I told her how impressed I was with her friendly demeanor, she smiled and said, “We call it freaky friendly.”

And so it is.

Greiner says that when a customer asks, “Where are the eggs?” the employees won’t just point to the aisle, they’ll take you there, and tell you what’s on special. I suspect they’d also carry them to your car, ride home with you and cook them.

“Everybody’s bought into the freaky friendly idea,” says Greiner. Bingo! There’s the key to creating a customer service culture in a retail setting – having complete buy-in from the top, down. Greiner says it’s contagious.

“The entire staff works very hard on the front end of the store, watching customers, watching each other, engaging patrons. We get a lot of calls from customers about how good our service is.”

And the occasional blog mention. Keep up the freaky friendly work, kids. I know old farts who could learn a lot from you. 


Quik Trip – The Ultimate Greeters


Try walking into a Quik Trip, any Quik Trip,  without being greeted with a “Hi!” or “Hello!” or “How are ya?” Go ahead, I dare you. It’s almost impossible, unless you come in through the chimney – like trying to pass metal through an airport detector without the alarm going off.

All that glad-handing is by design, says Mike Green, store manager at QT on Ingersoll in downtown Des Moines – one of the best of the best local QT’s when it comes to delivering “freaky friendly.”

 “We’re trained by corporate to either greet each customer as they come through the door or before they’re rung up, “says the Houston-born Green, who originally got on with Quik Trip “until something better came along.” 15 years later, nothing has.

Green says QT hires good people, for positions that pay above the competition, then run them through a rigorous in-store training process. But that’s only the beginning.

“Each store is secret shopped once a week by corporate,” says Green, “and each employee is scored on specific sets of criteria, including customer greeting, counting back change correctly, store cleanliness and employee appearance.” Green says that if an employee meets all the criteria, they receive a $50 bonus in their next paycheck. “It’s a great incentive.” Plus the entire store is also graded once a month – if it meets certain criteria, then that store also receives a bonus.

“Managers also attend a half-day “Good Merchant School,” says Green, “and we’re encouraged to read customer service training books.” He counts Raving Fans and Fish, the classic chronicle of a Seattle fish market store, among his favorites.     

I asked Green – who has achieved a certain level of fame among longtime downtown QT patrons – if he gets recognized when he’s not working at the store.

“I get it all the time – someone will shout, ‘Look! It’s the Quik Trip Dude!’ My kids think that’s cool.”

So do we, Mike – thanks for giving us all these years of hi’s, as one of the best QT dudes in DM.


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, marketing strategist and radio show host. Email him at