Four trips to Timpson

Four times this week I went to Timpson's – a UK shoe repairer and key cutting retailer. Each time was about a mailbox key. The first outlet I went to in Cornmarket, Oxford the assistant first said the key would be a special order and it would take a week to come in. When I told him I was leaving within a week he spent several minutes looking for an appropriate blank and found one that he thought would do the job.
I watched him cutting it. Splinters of metal were showering off the equipment and, out of interest, I asked him if he had eye protecting goggles. "Oh yes", he said. "They're in my apron pocket." He pulled them out to show me. "Why aren't you wearing them? Aren't you worried about your eyes?" I asked. "No", he said, "I just look away."

I knew a bit about Timpson as I'd done some research about it and included it as an example of a well run organization in my book Organization Culture: getting it right .

It's a long-established private family owned company, and the current CEO, John Timpson, is proud of his organization – take a look at his management column in The Daily Telegraph. The company is determinedly employee centered. Not that I always believe what's on the company website , in this case, "Our culture is unique, with the colleagues driving the business being the ones that serve the customers. This is what we call upside down management"

I looked around the shop. It had a number of cheerful posters proclaiming the high caliber of the employees, the benefits they get, the selection processes and so on. I noticed that the clock was showing the wrong time and asked what had happened. "Oh", said the same guy who cut my key, "the hour hand doesn't work. We just go by the minute hand and guess the hour." The other guy was busy serving another customer, and I listened to the exchange. The customer wanted a tag engraved for his dog's collar. It was 5:20 p.m. the store shut at 5:30 p.m. The assistant said "It'll take more than 10 minutes to engrave the tag. We're shutting now. You'll have to come back tomorrow." Hmm – not what I'd expect from a high caliber employee.

I tried out the key when I got home. It was stiff but finally worked after a fashion – it opened the mailbox. Then I realized that I needed a second one. The following day I went back to the same store in Cornmarket. I hadn't brought the key he'd cut the day before but just the original. The same guy who cut the first key was the one I explained to that he'd cut one the day before and it worked ok and I needed another. He glanced at my key "Oh, I don't know which blank I used. Bring back the one I cut and then I'll know." OK – I'm used to English style "customer service" so I went back later in the day with the one he'd cut the previous day.

This turned into a big production. He found the right blank. I suggested that he cut from my original but he said no and then "if it doesn't work you can bring it back." Still no goggles on, and then he couldn't get the clamp to work. The second guy suggested that he take the clamp off a different machine and put it on the one he was working on. This took a bit of time but finally he produced a second key. Guess what? It didn't work.

Back for the third time. Since I needed the key I asked for it to be recut. It turned out that there were no more blanks. "You can try the other shop," the second guy said. I asked for my money back on the second key. He was reluctant to give it to me since he said I could produce my receipt in the other shop and they would cut it for free. Since I had no idea whether the other shop had the blank and this shop didn't offer to call through and find out I pressed for my money (and got it).

Fourth go. I walked over to the other shop in the Covered Market. I produced the duplicate more-or-less working key and the non-working key. I said I wanted a recut of the second key. The assistant looked at it and said "it's been very badly cut." He compared it with the first duplicate key and said "this key hasn't be finished properly either. Give me the original and I'll cut a new one and then finish the other one properly." He wasn't wearing goggles at the time. I watched what happened next. He approached the machine. Pulled out the goggles from his apron pocket and put them on. He cut the key from the original and then took it to a different machine to finish it (this hadn't happened in the first shop). He then compared his duplicate with the other duplicate and took that to finish. "OK – that should do it," he said. "There's no charge. Sorry for your difficulties." I got home to find that both keys worked perfectly. (Oh, and the clock in the shop showed the right time).

So I'm wondering, again, about company culture. How is it that two stores , part of the same organization, in the same city can have such different attitudes, to customers, to safety, to pride in their work? My experience suggests that it's down to employee selection, local management , some tie-up to performance measures, a link to customer feedback and satisfaction, and the right tools to do the job. It seems that Timpson's has some mis-alignment here. It's inconsistent between stores.
I looked for their process for customer feedback. The spiel looks impressive. I'll give it a go and keep you posted.