Sam Walton: A Legacy of Customer Obsession

Michael Kennedy
4 min readMay 7, 2016

It was 1989, I was fresh out of college as I entered the Fort Pierce, Florida Wal-Mart store with a briefcase in hand. The first questions I asked my new boss was “where’s my office?” He smiled and said you’re standing in it. “You can lose the briefcase too. Roll up your sleeves, we’ve got work to do.” The mystique of Sam Walton swirled through the action alleys of the store. Sam was very much alive at the time and hellbent on customer obsession. These are three brief legendary stories of the master retailer as I remember him.

1.Keep the Corners Clean. After visiting with the cashiers and buggy busters Sam Walton would walk to the far corners of the Garden Center and inspect their cleanliness and organization. His logic was simple. If the corners of the Garden Center were neat and organized, the rest of the store most likely was too. But if there was junk piled up, cobwebs and dirt, it followed that there might be the same throughout the store. And the manager and his or her assistants would have a harsh “Come to Sam” meeting. The point was well taken. You don’t draw the line of excellence in customer service in any area of the store, not even the far corners of the Garden Center.

2.The Customer is Always Right. This rule of Sam’s took me a while to really understand and appreciate. But it obviously worked out just fine for him. Yes, some customers will take advantage and abuse the system now and then, but overall to err in favor of your customer makes good business sense. There was a customer, for example, who attempted to return a defective riding lawn mower at a Wal-Mart store with no receipt of purchase. The manager of the store refused to exchange or take back the lawn mower, so the customer made a call to Wal-Mart’s headquarters. That same day, the manager of the store received a call from Sam Walton. Sam told the manager to select the best riding lawn mower in the store and personally deliver it to the customer’s home. Sam wrapped up the call by saying, “…and while you’re there, mow his lawn.”

3.Don’t Hide Your Mess On The Roof. Sam Walton was a pilot. He loved to fly and make surprise visits to his stores. He was known for inspecting the number of cars in the Wal-Mart parking lots as he buzzed overhead. He’d get furious if he saw an empty parking lot; obviously, something was wrong at the store… but not for long. Sam would get to the bottom of it before you could say “Ol’Roy dog food!”

One afternoon he saw something that made him nearly land his plane in the empty parking lot itself. Upon learning that Sam Walton was making a surprise visit to his store, one manager and his staff rushed to beautify their receiving area, the large room in the back of the store where trucks off-load merchandise. The manager, unfortunately, wasn’t aware that Sam Walton was a private pilot. He had to think quick, “Where should we go with all this stuff before Mr. Walton arrives?” And to the roof they went… with cases and boxes and tons of inventory. The roof was quite a mess. But their receiving area sparkled like a world-class operation!

“That dog don’t hunt,” as they say in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Throughout my life I’ve kept these lessons with me: Always be Sam Walton ready, from the corners of your garden center to the roof of your store. Don’t give your customers a reason to contact HQs to dispute a transaction. Handle it yourself. Create magic for your customers, surprise them any way you can. If you get the chance… mow their lawn.

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Hey there, I’m Michael, I’m a dad, writer, sales & marketing consultant, recruiter, life-long learner… oh and passionate Growler too. You can learn more about my services by visiting LinkedIn, and crawl into my stories right here on Medium.com.

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