I’d been going to Al’s Barber Shop for a long time, even though my father-in-law recommended someone else when we moved into our house in 2010.
Generally, I had been content at Al’s for all those years. When I got Al (when he actually cut my hair), I always looked fine, and when I got one of the other barbers he’s employed over the years, I still always got a decent haircut. Al took pride in his business and made sure anyone he brought on board knew what they were doing.
But then, about a month ago, I waked into the barber shop while Al was busy with another customer and got introduced to his nephew, Eddie.
“Where’s Cologero?” I asked, referring to Al’s previous co-barber, an octogenarian Italian who would have made a super grandfather in the Godfather.
“He quit. He said the commute was too long and he wanted to retire,” Al said.
Damn, I thought to myself. I liked Cologero.
But with an open mind, I sat down in the chair, assuming any nephew of Al’s would be a good barber of mine.
Eddie was nice enough, and certainly chatty, but the first signs this was a match made in hell came when his hands approached my head and the stench of smoke was strong enough that I wondered if a lit cigarette was still in them. Now, I’ve got no problem with smokers in general, but I’ve got to believe there are strong enough soaps, detergents and cleansers on the market that the odor wafting off Eddie’s hands could have been mitigated with a small investment and a little effort.
But Eddie didn’t quite seem like the kind of guy who dwelled on such niceties. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not the dainty type. Al’s, especially before his recent renovation, is no salon, but rather a bare bones old-fashioned barber shop, more akin to run-down OTB than anything else. In fact, that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got. And so while unpleasant, the fact that Eddie’s hands smelled like he was clawing his way through the bottom of an amply used ashtray wasn’t a deal-breaker. That came later.
It came, in fact, when I got home and looked in the mirror, because that was the moment when I realized the hair on one side of my head was shorter (or longer depending on your point of comparison) than the other.
As I absorbed what had happened, I started to think about how I was going to deal with this new wrinkle. I knew, for one thing, I couldn’t have Edward Cigarette Hands cut my hair ever again. But as I thought about how I’d avoid him, I kept coming up empty. What if I went there and Al was busy while Eddie had an open chair? Though I could have refused his services at first and said something like, “Oh, I’m going to stick with Al,” it’s much different after the person has already cut your hair.
I also couldn’t imagine taking Al to the side and telling him that his kinfolk was a lousy barber. I mean, what if he took it the wrong way, or the right way, or whatever? What if he called Eddie over and make us talk it out? No thanks.
The only conclusion I could come to was that Al’s decision to hire Eddie meant I couldn’t go to Al’s Barber Shop anymore; that after eight years, I had to make a change. So with heavy heart (I have a certainly loyalty to my vendors), I asked my father-in-law for the name of his barber and, when the time was right, sheepishly entered that establishment. Vinnie and I got along swimmingly and so, it seems, that will be that.
And therein, of course, lies a scary lesson in running businesses and organizations, in the art of keeping customers. It’s scary because we see just how tenuous that relationship is, even with someone who’s been with you for eight years and doesn’t like to switch. It shows the business owner that they can never rest on their laurels; that they must always maintain high quality and service, and they can NEVER, NEVER introduce a systemic risk into their ecosystem like Al did.
One-off mistakes happen and, through root-causes analyses and subsequent process revision, they can quickly and efficiently be addressed, but when you do what Al did by hiring his unqualified nephew, you have introduced something into your business that will make mistakes over and over and over. This, you cannot do, you cannot have; and this is why people issues (having bad folks on the bus) must be addressed, for people repeat their errors and magnify their flaws every day.
I’m done with Al for now, but even he should not lose heart, for just as he squandered my business, so Vinnie may if he falls down on the job. Just in case he does, anyone know a good barber in my area?