Suppository jars, good jelly and bad customer service

Dennis Schrag/Tree Full of Owls

My mother’s aunt was an Italian immigrant who spoke very limited English. She and her husband settled in a small Iowa railroad community. It was a humble enclave with other relatives. In the early 1920s they escaped utter poverty, rocky dirt and no work in central Italy. When you have so little you make it go as far as you can.

These immigrants recycled everything. Tanta Louise was a great believer of “re-use.” She also made the very best jelly in the world. Her back yard was rich with black Iowa soil that consistently produced bountiful grapes, strawberries, red raspberries and blackberries. She harvested the berries and astonishingly converted them into the most amazing jelly and jam. She knew it was great stuff. She gave it away as a humble but much coveted present. She would seal the jelly in jars she recycled from multiple sources: baby food, petroleum jelly, dippy-do hair control gel, olives, peanut butter… any and every small jar was reusable. She sealed the rich jelly with an off-white paraffin wax and replaced the original cover.

One holiday season, Aunt Louise gave me a gift of her finest jelly. She was old. We would not have that kind of gift for very many years. The exquisite blackberry jelly had been carefully simmered and wax-sealed in a suppository jar. I knew the jelly was great, but the container and wax seal was disconcerting. I decided I would re-gift the jelly to my sister. Each year for many Christmases, the suppository jelly was re-gifted among family members. We all knew the jelly was great, but the packing was disgusting. Re-gifting this jar of jelly became a tradition. I got it back three times.

A few weeks ago, I ordered a new lateral file for my home office from one of the big box office supply stores. It was easy. They were so nice and helpful on the phone when I ordered it. They were considerate and articulate. The file was priced right, the quality was good, the ordering process, efficient. Great jelly.

Just one problem, I had to be at the house between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for the delivery. You know, sit around and wait. I waited all day. No file. No phone call. I called the vender. They were so nice.

Here is my side of the phone conversation with the expletives removed: “Where is my file? It did not arrive. I have been waiting since 8 a.m. And what time is it now? Yes, that is correct 6 p.m. What! Wait all day again tomorrow? Are you crazy? I know you are sorry, but where is my file? A delivery service with no cell phone?” Not easy. This was 100 percent paraffin and suppository jar.

Some lessons can be learned from this experience. Sometimes you can’t keep your service promises. Have you trained your people to use the phone? Can they let the customer know the service will be breached? Now that is easy. That’s good jelly re-gifted. Fail to keep your customer in mind at every step, and that’s a suppository jar.


Continuing with the importance of role modeling, it is essential to create a predictable environment, especially for a small child. The same holds true for managers. Ask employees about what the worst manager looks like and many will respond with, “What mood is he in today?” Managing one’s consistency or predictability is more easily accomplished if one manages the say/do ratio. Do what you say you will do, and if you cannot, inform why as much as possible. In general, some information is better than no information.

“Why” is a good lead-in to verbal communication. In general, it is better for children to know than not to know. They “read” their parents well and if there is a problem they sense something is amiss. Communication is the solution even if it means not knowing exactly what to say. I remember my daughter when she was about four and we were in the car together asking, “Will you die before mom?” You can be sure I gave that one some thought before I answered. By the way, although the “why” questions can sometimes drive you nuts, it’s always best to try to encourage questions, as they often start important conversations.

Research looking at interactions between parents and children shows that better conversations result from child-initiated interactions. Interesting that the same seems to be the case with interactions between employees and managers. How many times are parents or managers too busy right now? Re-scheduling works OK with employees but not so well with children. Make the effort to listen now as much as you can.

Perhaps the hardest realization of many new parents and new managers is that it is most important that their children or employees respect them. Acting in the best interests of the company or the family may not be the decision that those being managed seek or prefer, but it is usually the better decision.

A colleague of mine has a sign on the fridge at home that says something like “Remember, we are their parents, not their friends.” Later, when children get in the early 20s, you will probably make the relationship transition from parent-child to adult-adult, and what a sense of personal satisfaction that can be after lots of year of parental angst.

Dennis Schrag is president of the Longview Group of Iowa City. E-mail him at