Thursday, February 8, 2007

Professional (if you can call it that) Frustration: Part 1 – The Best Suck Job I’ve Ever Had

Understand, I classify a "Suck Job" as a meager position with little authority and even less pay that you take because you need a job – any job. This mostly includes the service industry, but generally is any job that doesn't fit into your chosen career or vocation. This doesn't mean they're BAD jobs, and even (as I will empart) good things can happen there.

First and foremost, I direct your attention to the center ring…

Last Friday I went to work at Blockbuster and was greeted by my shift manager with, "You better call Scott," referring to our district leader. One never likes to be told to call one's superiors – especially the ones a couple steps up on the chain of command. I wasn't too nervous, but a bit perplexed.

I called him up, knowing that despite my unorthodox behavior as the "Active Seller" at the (now only) Royal Oak store, he couldn't say much that was bad about me. I don't adhere strictly to my job description as set forth by company policy and standard operating procedures. I joke, I come in costume, I play my ukulele on the job between customers, I bring in my barbershop quartet on occasion, and generally have as much fun with my job as the management will allow (or at least pretend to ignore). This has turned me into almost some weird kind of local icon in the neighborhood and with our customers. Despite my unusual ways, I've never had a serious customer complaint in my 6 years with Big Blue and I have quite likely the highest sales rate of any individual in the district, perhaps region, even given my meager (until recently) 10 average hours a week.

Apparently, he emparted, a columnist from the Detroit Free Press had caught my "act" after being clued into it from a coworker and wanted to do an article about me and my offbeat ways at Blockbuster! I agreed, gave a call to the Media Relations guy from corporate and got the rundown on what NOT to say (basic stuff like don't talk business trends and corporate policy). I then called the reporter to schedule an interview.

He came by this past Tuesday, watched me do my usual weekend routine on a weekday (for show), and asked me some innocuous questions about why I play that darned thing week after week. The article itself is brief, but good and in its proper context. He left out a few key details I had hoped he'd leave in like a plug for my quartet, mention of my other endeavors, and a quip praising the Blockbuster online program (per my district manager's suggestion), but the picture is nice and big!

You can purchase a copy of it here:
Detroit Free Press Archives: A Few Minutes With a Blockbuster Ukulele Player

A bit of background…

I started at the Clawson Blockbuster, after one of my occasional 2-week bouts of unemployment. Back then (late 90's, pre-kids and mortgage), finding a 'job' was easy. Each new job I took was a little better paying and my stints without one were brief. My friend Anthony, who was the store manager at the Clawson Blockbuster mentioned that he needed an assistant manager, so I figured I'd give it a go. He mentioned good benefits, quoted a decent hourly he'd suggest to the mucky-mucks that I start with, and the free rents were a nice perk, so I took the job.

It was a good job. I've always said the work to pay ratio at Blockbuster was great, even if the pay itself was not. I was well respected as an assistant manager and was often asked to transfer when there was a store in need of some shaping up in that regard. Managing is not my cup o' tea, per cest, but I got to relate to customers, talk movies, watch movies under the pretext of work-related research, and enjoyed most of my time there.

I took a year off after getting a job at Mars Music in the band instrument department. Those of you who know my theater résumé, know that "selling band instruments, AAAND instruction books, AAAnd u-nee-forms" is right up my alley. Deciding I needed to have health insurance with a family, and when that job proved to suck due to poor promotion of the store as a band instrument store as opposed to a drums/guitars/sound equipment store, I went back to BBV.

I continued to manage for a few months, but got tired and burnt-out quickly, as I was also working my new day job as an instrument repair tech and working with a few marching bands in the fall as well. I started to suck at my job and had less enthusiasm for it every day.

I had actually decided to quit when my store manager called me to a little meeting. He confronted me with my lax performance and ennui as of late, and I confessed my intentions. To my only slight surprise, he and the district leader had discussed firing me, but couldn't justify it, as I was the only one keeping their sales goals on track. He suggested the newly created role of "active seller" – someone on the floor during peak shifts whose express purpose is to promote the newest sales priorities and assist customers on the sales floor. No paperwork, no cash handling, no conflict resolution – just customer service. It would mean a bit of a pay cut and being stripped on my management authority and computer access, but would keep my benefits and relegate me solely to my strengths. Bingo.

After a few lulls during a few on my shifts, I asked my manager if I could just run to my car and grab my ukulele when the place was empty (which would happen occasionally even on a weekend night shift). A few regulars would come in while I was dabbling on it and I'd blush a bit, tuck the instrument aside and help them. A few were rather impressed, however.

As I got a bit better and taught myself some more chords, I started teaching myself songs that I felt lent themselves well to the idiom. I started with "Tonight You belong to Me", the duet with Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in the Jerk. From there, I added a few Monty Python songs, and several other movie-related tunes – pretty soon I had a repertoire and started unabashedly playing them when there were folks IN the store.

It became my gimmick.

When I was transferred to the South Royal Oak store after my home store was unceremoniously closed, I asked if I could do the same there. I was met with a shrug and a, "why not". I serenade fussy kids with "Rainbow Connection" or "You've Got a Friend in Me", sing "Happy Birthday" when I'm clued in to the appropriate situation, and even start learning the songs from film on the in-store trailer tape (hence my ukulele rendition of Abba's "Dancing Queen" mentioned in the article).

It's gone over well with customers, overall. Most smile as they walk in, a few roll their eyes, and now I can't work a shift without a dozen people asking where my uke is if it's not immediately in my hands! I've never been confronted directly with someone who doesn't like my gimmick – only a couple relayed from folks at the register.

So that's the in-depth story BEHIND the story in today's Freep. If you'd like a print copy with a nice big black & white photo of Yours Truly, go check today's (Thursday, Feb 8th, 2007) Detroit Free Press and turn to page 2 of section B.

If you do the web version, leave a comment for the writer! Nice guy and treated me very well, I'd say!

Oh, and let me know what YOU think of the article!

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