Grumpy Old Men in Gun Stores: Employee Recruitment Can Mean Everything to Your Customers


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Why are gun stores always staffed with “grumpy old men?”

That’s the question I heard jokingly tossed around early one Sunday morning on a local radio talk show. The cohosts’ consensus (valid or not) was that most every Austin gun store had one “grumpy old man” working the gun counter and that the store’s owner depended on him for his deep product knowledge, but the price of that knowledge was often prickly, curmudgeon tendencies that could rub customers the wrong way.

The dialogue entertainingly reminded me how customer-facing jobs come in all shapes and sizes and how the need for multiple skills sets drives staffing complexities in firms, small and large.

There is an aspect of good customer service that’s unteachable.

No doubt, customer-facing employees are critical to your firm’s success and it’s essential that your frontline brand makers be well equipped to serve.

What, exactly, are the different skills sets required on the front lines of today’s firms? Are all customer-facing skills equally teachable? What are best practices for staffing your firm with the best possible talent?

McKinsey & Co. divides American jobs across several distinct categories, two of which are those jobs that are transactional (interactions that are easily scripted or automated) and those that are tacit (complex, intricate interactions that require superior levels of judgment). Today, frontline, customer-facing positions can range from those requiring highly transactional skills (think of the checker at your grocery store) to highly tacit skills (think of the pharmaceutical sales rep) to some combination in between.

The competition for tacit talent is skyrocketing. McKinsey research finds that between the years 2006 and 2012, the number of American jobs that emphasize tacit interactions will have grown 21/2 times as fast as the number of transactional jobs and three times as fast as employment in general. As economies outside the United States lean toward the same requirements, global demand for workers who can do jobs requiring complex skills is escalating.

What this means to you is this: If your customer-facing positions require tacit skills, get ready. Your firm must prepare itself to fight harder and smarter to attract and keep this type of customer-facing talent than ever before.


But back to those supposedly “grumpy old men” in Austin gun stores. They’ve reportedly got the tacit knowledge the frontline job requires. Can’t they be trained to be nice?

Ask Barbara Talbott, executive vice president for marketing at Four Seasons Hotels, that question and you’ll likely get a “no.”: “Whenever the topic of customer service is broached, people always ask us about our training. We respond by talking about recruitment,” she says. “There is an aspect of good customer service that’s unteachable. It really comes down to how we select our employees. We believe that there are certain attitudes that some people bring to their job that predispose them to being an effective deliverer of service. [Those include] kindness, helpfulness, a genuine desire to see other people happy and taking pride in doing things well,” she says.

Tacit skills? Predisposed-to-serve skills? Some combination? How do you hire smart? In our book, Customer Winback: How to Recapture Lost Customers—and Keep Them Loyal (Jossey-Bass Inc., 2001), Mike Lowenstein and I offer six time-tested guidelines. Here are some highlights:

  • Profile your firm’s top performers first. A firm’s best hires typically have a lot in common with top performers. Don’t overlook personality profiling tests for spotting service acumen. Such tests are a best practice at Southwest Airlines and other service-centered firms.
  • Make recruiting top talent a key corporate value. At a Silicon Valley PR firm we researched, members of the management team are required to engage in two high-profile activities each year and make no less than two recruitment-related phone calls every week.
  • Get customers and staff involved in selection. Who knows better how to spot high-potential, service-centered applicants than those people who will work with them? At Frontier Media Group, job candidates talk with as many as a half-dozen staffers in as many as three different trips.
  • Reward staff for successful hires. Staff loyalty studies show prospective employees referred by existing staff make the best new hires. At AccuData America, an employee referral is worth $2,000 with $500 paid out immediately to the referring employee with the remainder paid at subsequent retention milestones.
  • Make the salary competitive. Don’t let low-ball salaries block you from top talent. Advises a McKinsey consultant, “If you’re not willing to pay … you’re going to get Luminas, not Mercedes coming in the door.”
  • Collect feedback on your recruiting process. Even the best recruiting program can always be improved. A Los Angeles real estate firm asks candidates about other companies they’re interviewing with and what makes a particular company attractive.

Bottom line, the competition between firms for customer-facing talent will only get hotter. Get your firm prepared. And one more thing: About those “grumpy old men” that can supposedly be found in Austin guns stores—I’ll take one over a “dirty old man” any day!

Jill Griffin
Griffin Group
Jill Griffin is a "Harvard Working Knowledge" author of three books on customer loyalty. She serves as public board director for Luby's Cafeterias, Fuddruckers and Jimmy Buffets' Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants. Microsoft, Dell, Marriott Hotels, Ford, Toyota, Wells Fargo, IBM, Subaru are a few of the clients served since she hung out her "Loyalty Maker" shingle in 1988. Jill delivers customized keynotes worldwide. Sign up for her monthly loyalty tip at


  1. Jill, A agree with your assessment of what to do or not do when hiring the “right” salespeople but . . .
    I do not believe that it relates to just the hiring of salespeople or that the reason they are grumpy is because the hiring process was wrong. Many times salespeople are grumpy due to the attitudes or shortcomings of support, supervisory, management and attitudes, policies, procedures, environment salespeople are placed in. Hence, the same care should be taken with hiring those who are, at least what they and others think, are not “in sales.” Many times, while customers blame the salespeople, it is other things that caused the customer to be dissatisfied. As you are aware, may articles on Customer Think have broached the subject that all employees are sales people no matter what their job title or description is.

    Early on in my retail career in our family business that it was, often, better to hire people with no experience than it was to hire people who came from other like businesses. The job of undoing what they did before and morph into our culture took more time than starting anew with someone. Of course, we had the advantage of all family members working “behind the counter” so the thing that were doing were things that made it easier for us and, hence, for customers do do what their job was . . .buying. Because they were able to react to what was getting in their and our customers’ ways, the environment new employees stepped into had less barriers to making sales than what I see in business today. What they did or reacted to was just a way of life.

    One of the first things I did after leaving the store and starting my consulting business, was to write down or codify what the family members did automatically, The end result was Business Calisthenics as outlined in the business articles on my web site. Where my clients have worked these exercises into their business, the result has helped alleviate the employee grumpiness and customer complaints.

    Thank you for your suggestions to solving the ever-lasting problem of hiring. I hope your suggestions and, maybe, my comments, will help readers of Customer Think

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network
    Member, &


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