Achieving Business Success

By Robert L. Bailey

My first "real" job was in my home town of Fort Scott , Kansas  - not counting my "kid" jobs and the military. The property and casualty insurance company for which I worked was the largest employer in this town of about 10,000 people. The company was headquartered in the middle of the downtown area. One could walk two or three blocks to either end of the downtown where most of the merchants had their stores.

The core hours of the insurance company ended at 5 p.m. The downtown stores closed at 5 p.m. Periodically, however, some of the insurance company employees who got off work at 5 o'clock managed to get into some of those stores before the merchants had a chance to lock the doors. And do you know what they did? They tried to buy something.

This outrageous behavior, of course, was not acceptable and could not be permitted to continue. After all, the merchants had other important things to do at 5 o'clock. Like play golf or watch I Love Lucy reruns. So the merchants started to lock their door at ten minutes before five so these insurance company people wouldn't come in and try to buy something.

This worked well for many years. Customers returned when it was convenient for the merchant to sell, not necessarily when it was convenient for customers to buy, simply because there were no options.

But all this changed when a man came along whose name was Sam Walton. He built a Walmart store at the edge of town that was open until 11 p.m. every day, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Today should you drive down the Main Street of that little town – now about 7,000 strong – most of the merchants are out of business. The ones that remain are struggling at best and cursing Sam Walton.

I insist Sam Walton didn't cause their downfall. It was customer service.

In those days Walmart had no price advantage. Sam wouldn't build a store where there was K-Mart competition because he felt he couldn't compete with K-Mart prices.

But Sam was a brilliant marketer. He knew that it was not possible to sell something if the door was locked. Genius! He made it possible to buy when it was convenient for the customer, not necessarily convenient for the merchant. That, incidentally, is a lesson that many businesses today can learn from.

And Sam decided to be nice to customers – another unique idea. He introduced a greeter – a person who smiled and spoke to customers entering the store and who directed them to the proper aisle to find the item they were looking for. He initiated the Walton Ten-Foot Rule, which required that Walmartt associates smile and speak to customers when they were within ten feet.

Have you been in a Walmart store lately? Most of the Walmart associates I see are tape-measure challenged. They don't know how to pace off ten feet, so for the most part they don't smile and speak. I often go through Walmart stores and practice the Reverse Ten-Foot Rule. I smile and speak to Walmart associates. On several occasions I've nearly caused severe disabling whip-lash injuries. Not long ago I stopped a young associate and asked, "Have you ever heard of the Walton Ten-Foot Rule?" He hesitated for a few seconds and answered, "Yeow, it's on the door back there," as he walked off without smiling and speaking.

Not long ago my wife and I entered a Walmart store near our home when we heard a sales meeting in progress at the back of the store. There was cheering and clapping as enthusiastic associates responded to their manager's call to "make the numbers." I liked what I heard.

I started back toward the meeting as my wife stopped at a display shelf. She didn't want anybody to know that she knew me. When the manager recognized that a stranger was within the circle of associates, he stopped and asked, "Sir, may we help you find something?"

"No, I want to be a part of your sales meeting," I answered. He was a little stunned so I continued, "I want you to re-introduce the Walton Ten-Foot Rule. Does anybody here know what the Walton Ten-Foot Rule is?" One lady raised her hand, "I know," she said, and she explained it to the group.

The manager picked up on my point. "There you have it from a customer. If we're going to meet our sales numbers, we have to smile, we have to speak, we must be friendly and helpful to customers."

We've been in the same store since, and as far as I can see neither he nor I had any impact on the behavior of associates. I've even met the manager in the aisle – who did not smile or speak.

Here's the leadership question of the century: Why was it possible for associates to smile and speak to customers when Sam Walton was alive, and why is it so difficult today?

Perhaps size of the organization has something to do with it, but I don't think that's the reason. The reason is that Sam Walton believed it was important, he believed it was the difference between success and failure, he did it himself, he lived it, he breathed it, he bled it, he insisted on it, and he communicated it over and over again.

What initiative is vital to the success of your organization? And how do you get your people to respond to that initiative to assure your success?

It's a matter of doing what Sam Walton did – believe in it, do it yourself, live it, breath it, bleed it, insist on it, and communicate it over and over again. That's the leadership lesson of the century.

Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO of a major company. Visit or contact him at 919-629-6226 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..