I was complaining to my wife recently that everything these days comes in impenetrable plastic casings. Frustrated and in a hurry, I grabbed a pocket knife. Let's just say that the package wasn't the only thing I opened.

I soon found myself getting stitches and a tetanus shot for the first time in about 25 years. (On the bright side, I can now step on rusty nails with confidence.)

After my doctor visit, I headed to a local pharmacy to fill my antibiotics prescription. I was told it would take a few minutes, and I took a seat in the waiting area.

Sitting there, I was reminded that too many folks in management take for granted the shock-absorbing function of front-line employees. People who are removed from the front lines do not always realize (or remember) the "smoothing out" that these folks do for us. They are not only "the face" of our companies to most customers but also the folks who keep "issues" from becoming "incidents."

As it turned out, a particularly challenging customer walked up to the pharmacy counter line while I was waiting. She was miffed about not being able to find a sale item and waved a newspaper coupon around in a pretty antagonistic way.

I was privy to the entire conversation as that customer kept belittling the employee and the store.

I heard everything the employee said. She apologized that they were out of the item on that coupon (it was clearly marked "while supplies last"). She also had to explain that they could not let a customer use the coupon on a substitute brand.

The employee handled herself very politely and respectfully as she tried to make the customer understand the situation. I'm pretty sure that even my 8-year-old could have grasped the explanation, but this customer wasn't accepting it. She wanted to see a manager.

The employee called for the manager. The line grew longer and more impatient. While this was going on, a pharmacist was only a few steps away. I know he heard the entire conversation. I also know he could have mollified that customer with just a few words.

He definitely fit the bill of "authority figure." Yet he kept his head down and did not step in to help defuse the problem or help in any way.

When the manager arrived at the back counter, she stood there without engaging the customer. She listened as the employee explained the issue. Then she curtly said to both customer and employee, "Sorry. We're not allowed to substitute brands. The special is 'while supplies last.' "

More grumbling ensued as the manager departed and the employee was left to finish checking out that customer — who continued to get her digs in. It was clear that this customer was still looking for an argument. But the lady behind the counter wasn't giving her one. She kept her composure.

It would have been easy for the employee to adopt a sour demeanor and spread ill will to the next customers. Instead, she maintained a level of courtesy and professionalism that was admirable.

When my prescription was ready, I walked to the counter and said, "I've got a laundry detergent coupon. Can I use it for my antibiotics?" The lady behind the counter smiled from ear to ear and said under her breath, "Can you believe some people?"

I told her that "problem customers" were put on earth to make us appreciate the nice people that we do get to deal with. I also told her that she handled the situation far better than I could have.

As she finished ringing up my purchase, she smiled and said, under her breath again, "Thank you for saying that. I don't think the bosses here understand what we put up with sometimes."

I walked away feeling both good and bad about that encounter. I was glad I had cheered up the employee a bit. But I was also bothered that the managers in that store did not seem willing to step up and defuse problems or at least show appreciation for those who do.

When that is the case, employees' drive to do so can quickly deteriorate. And so can service.

How would your front-line team respond if asked whether their bosses "get it" when it comes to the problem-solving and shock-absorbing functions they perform? Sure, you may truly appreciate it. But have you personally communicated that recently?

Over time, employees will give customers the levels of courtesy and respect they feel they are given by their employers. In the stressful times both banks and bank customers now face, this is true more than ever.

Customer-contact folks like our tellers, new account employees and phone support people are far more likely to give the extra effort it takes to handle tough situations professionally when they know it is at least noticed and valued by their leaders.

Make a point this week to make sure that your folks know that you do.

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