The Pickle

The customer-service conundrum

A few weeks ago I was coming home to Madison from Montreal. I was hungry and the airport dining options were dismal. I finally settled on a sad little sandwich, made and served by a distracted clerk.

I took my first bite of the sandwich, followed by a bite of the pickle.

Ewww! The pickle had gone bad. Spoiled. Expired.

I spit the entire mouthful into a napkin.

How long, I wondered, does a pickle have to sit in a jar before it goes bad?

My mom canned all kinds of stuff that came out of our garden. During President Clinton’s first term, we were eating pickles from the Reagan era. I’m sure of this because every jar had a masking-tape label that listed its contents and the date it was sealed. “Cukes, August 1986.”

And Mom’s pickles tasted fine. My pickle must’ve been Jimmy-Carter-gas-lines-hostage-situation old.

I walked back to the counter, where the tired woman who’d made my sandwich was checking messages on her cell phone.

“Can I help you?” she asked as she put her pink phone to her ear.

“I got a bad pickle,” I said.

“Do you want another one?” she asked.

I did not want another pickle. I wanted her to care. I wanted her to apologize. I wanted her to offer me a shot of bleach to get that awful taste out of my mouth.

But it was too much to ask. She didn’t know me. Heck, she doesn’t know the person who signs her paycheck. She may wear the company’s logo on her shirt, but she’s not emotionally connected to her job, her employer or me.

She didn’t really care that I got a bad pickle.

We’ve all got pickle stories. Poor service persists. According to the annual State of Customer Service report (published by Stirtz Group LLC and, it’s worst among cell-phone carriers, health care organizations, government agencies and airlines.
In other words, service is crappiest among the organizations that serve most of us, those with thousands—and sometimes millions—of

We’ve heard about “too big to fail.” It occurs to me that another downside of companies that get “too big” is that they also get disconnected. Disconnected from their customers. Disconnected from their employees. Disconnected from their true purpose.

The real reason we get poor service is because employees don’t care. And they don’t care because they’re not connected.

Small is beautiful.

A couple weeks ago, I was at Ace on Willy Street. I needed to buy all the chain of a certain size they had in stock. Rather than take the time to measure the roll, one of the owners eyeballed it and offered what I knew was a discounted price. It was the kind of no-hassle, friendly service you get every time you step foot in that store.

Is it just good service? Or is it something more?

Adam Smith considered it self-interest. In The Wealth of Nations, he writes, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

What Smith is saying (in triplicate) is that it’s in businesspeople’s best interest to take good care of their customers, because then we recommend them, we return to them and we open our wallets ever-wider for them.

Smith might’ve called it “the invisible hand.” Today, we’d call it a positive review on Yelp.

Pendulums swing, and businesses cycle. In the wake of “too big to fail,” perhaps our economies will return to a size where interactions are more humane and people care.

Until then, I’m canning my own pickles.

Rebecca Ryan is a Madison-based business owner who believes “people first, profits follow.” Email her your feedback—or pickle stories—to

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