The New Secret Behind the Old New City Market


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Whatever happened to Lee Roy Clark? Mr. Clark ran the New City Market in my rural South Georgia hometown all of my childhood. He was my introduction to what it meant to be a “merchant”—always courteous and eager to help all who came into his all-purpose store. It amazes me that the business world today is rediscovering the value of great service that permeated Lee Roy Clark’s bones.

Now, before you argue that great service involves much more than neighborly manners, let me add that Lee Roy Clark knew a lot about a service mission, customer-centered delivery systems and service recovery. To be sure, Lee Roy was no scholar of service management. He did what he did out of a devotion to his customers. Customer service to Lee Roy was about shared power–his power to provide goods united with his customers’ power to keep him in business.

Lee Roy felt a responsibility to all who crossed the threshold of his store. He served from of a simple belief: “My customers are my neighbors.” To cheat or disappoint a customer would be as inappropriate as starting an argument at a family reunion. He believed his customers were honest–and they always seemed to be. He assumed differences with customers would be resolved with a sense of fair play–and they always seemed to be.

Lee Roy knew what his customers needed and expected. One day my father stopped in to buy a loaf of bread. “Mr. Bell,” said Lee Roy in his always polite voice, “I ordered you some of those fly strips for your pig house. Last time you were in here, you complained the flies were about to take away your furrowing house.” I wonder how many businesses today would stock an item based solely on data gathered through “fair weather” conversation. Lee Roy cared a lot more about service than inventory. And, when my father opted to not buy the yellow fly strips, Lee Roy acted neither hurt nor disappointed.

Lee Roy rearranged his grocery store every so often. “Customers are always telling me better ways to set up the store,” he said one summer day when I was in town to buy a lawn mower blade at Hinson’s and popped in the New City Market to get an RC cola. “I’m not always crazy about their ideas,” he admitted, “But if I didn’t make a few changes they’d think I didn’t have any respect for ’em.” If there was a new fad, Lee Roy would have it in stock in a flash. He had hula hoops and fireball jawbreakers before the big stores in the “big” city of Macon!

Lee Roy was also effective at recovering from a customer service hiccup. There was no need for a written “money back guarantee”—Lee Roy WAS the guarantee. My grandmother bought an ice cream churn from Lee Roy–the kind grandsons endlessly hand crank to turn thick cream into a summer eve’s delight. It was a July day when she unpacked it only to discover the crank was missing. “Lee Roy,” she complained, “you sold me a bum steer!” Lee Roy drove three miles out in the country with another churn. With him, he brought a fresh-baked apple pie and a gallon of “store bought” ice cream. Now, here’s the best part: He sat out under the oak trees with my grandmother and for a half hour quizzed her on her secrets for growing perfect azaleas!

I suppose I’m on thin ice simplifying a very challenging issue. Service providers today must deal with complex legal restrictions, varied customer requirements, giant competitors with the latest technology and cheap overseas labor, plus a scarcity of local smart employees willing to work hard–all in a very tough economy. Yet, sometimes I wonder if the question of customer loyalty really is simpler than we realize. Perhaps we just need to rekindle the passion to give customers the kind of devotion that guided Lee Roy Clark.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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