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I’m an Entrepreneur. It Rhymes with Manure.

February 25, 2010

When I wan in high school, I worked at a Main Street pharmacy called Anglin’s Drug in Buford, a small town in the suburbs of Atlanta.

It was the sort of place where every Saturday morning when I’d open up at 7:45 the same three sweet old geezers would be waiting for me to unlock the door. I’d come in, make the coffee, and proceed to the front of the store to straighten up the cigarettes.

In the aisles I vaccuumed before I left each of the three weeknights I always worked, we sold the usual drug store stuff: magazines, cold medication, nylon stockings. But behind the counter in addition to things the doctor prescribed, you could buy a secret formula housemade sore throat gargle that left you numb and utterly pain free.

We knew our customers by name and prescription. There was the woman who came in shouting from the front door, “My Lithium’s making me fat.” There was another woman with a crewcut, a light beard and serious armpit hair who pulled sweaty rolls of cash out of her bra.

The most interesting thing about this place though, looking back on it now, was the system of store credit that the owner/parmacist extended to his customers.

It had two tiers. The first was a semi-formal system of accounts, for which there was no application or credit check beyond the deep small town connections to family, church and jobs. This system had signatures, bills and some sense of accountability.

The other system was so informal as to be unbelievable in this day and age especially in light of the financial crisis and the credit crunch. There was a plastic box that sat next to the main register and – for familiar customers – a prescription or purchase could be written down in an index card.

They’d pay when they could, if they could, and my sense was most of them did. When they’d make a payment, usually near the beginning of the month, we’d just scratch through the old total and write a new one in its place.

I was just 16, 17, 18, and here I was essentially making lending decisions that determined whether someone would be able to get their medication. I’d sometimes walk behind the counter and share the embarrased request to “borrow” a few days of pills until the paycheck came through.

For all its informality, the system worked. Even though it was one Bill had inherited from the pharmacist he’d bought the store from more than a half century before, the antiquated system of credit based on trust was one that functioned well.

Beyond credit, the store provided access to health care in other ways. Many customers would come to the side door behond the counter that led up to the pharmacy bench to talk to Bill when they had a confidential question. He’d offer advice, referrals to trusted doctors and even his own occasional concoction along with a personal serenade of a gospel tune thrown in for good measure.

I was reminded of the Anglin’s Drug days today at lunch with Stephen Higgins (@journeyofnow). We were talking about this old ad I have on my desk that features my dad as himself, the Cadillac dealership Service Director, pointing under the hood of a car with a client and explaining the repair.

This ad conveyed the notion of trust and service well in an industry not known for excellence in that realm. It connects me every day with the idea that you build your customers’ and employees’ trust and keep them coming back to YOU – even when there may be cheaper or more convenient options out there – when you understand their problems and provide and explain nimble and simple solutions that meet their needs.

Whether those needs are a sense of job security or informal systems that provide access not only to credit but to health care, it is essential that we poke our heads under the hood with our clients and employees. We need to be unafraid of sullying our fancy suits and instead jump in there where our customers and employees are.

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