How one Boston taxi driver (pictured) changed my “Customers Included” talk

Stuart the Boston Taxi DriverYesterday, I had a great and humbling conversation with my taxi driver on my way to my last “Customers Included” book talk of the week in Boston – and it changed what I had to say when I got on stage.

Stuart – my driver – was very friendly from the start. He texted me about his early arrival, helped me with my bags, and when he saw I had hard-boiled eggs (uncracked) he offered that I go ahead and eat them and not worry about making a mess in his car (note: I made no mess). Overall, he just had a warm and humble disposition – a really strong service mindset. He was unusual for a taxi driver.

After we put my bags in the trunk and Stuart started us on the trek to WGBH, I asked him how long he’d been driving. He said he liked his job and had been with this taxi company about a year. When i asked what he did before this taxi company, he started – tentatively at first – to share his life story.

It turns out that once upon a time Stuart had owned car dealerships and had been very financially successful. Dealerships can be very profitable and he confirmed that his were.

I asked what happened – did the recession knock out his businesses? I knew that some car dealerships had gone under after 2008.

He said no – rather in 2006, he had had a massive heart attack that put him into a coma for three months.

Wow. I didn’t expect him to say that. We talked about that harrowing experience.

Then I asked why did that mean he lost his business? Surely his employees oversaw and took care of the dealerships before his return? He said no.

Instead, he explained that he had been greedy and arrogant and mistreated his employees. As a result, they took money out of the business while he was sick. The car dealerships all went under. Rather than goodwill and trust to rely on, Stuart’s previous leadership style had created a toxic culture.

He agreed that this kind of culture is not unusual in the car dealership world – though he emphasized that didn’t excuse his own bad behavior. I concurred and said that we consumers experience the bad behavior of car dealers – many of us really dislike how car dealers treat us (and appreciate what Cars.com and others have done to make our experience better).

Stuart was not bitter. In fact, if anything he seemed grateful. He had a better, healthier life now – and he didn’t say but it seemed obvious to me – that Stuart is just a better person now.

I told him it was hard to believe that this decent, humble man driving me had once been an arrogant, greedy SOB. He said that money had been his god. He said that at 55 he could have retired for life but at 56 he had the heart attack and lost his businesses and now had to work a $9 an hour job.

And then he said that he’s grateful. He’s most grateful that his wife put up with him for many years and that when he lost the businesses she didn’t leave him.

He did lose a lot of “friends” – people he now realizes were not friends but acquaintances. Once the money was gone, they were gone. But he has his health now and can spend time with his wife, his sons and his grandchildren.

I told Stuart that he has a gift – that his story and his choices are important for him to share.

Stuart said that he did try to advise young people in his life to learn from his mistakes – to not put money first, but rather to listen and learn from employees and customers; to treat them well. Stuart says that he doesn’t find he is very successful sharing this message. Most people, he said, just approach business the way he used to.

I told him I had written a whole book on how many companies ignore, exclude or alienate customers, employees, and partners.

I then asked his permission to share this story for him. He agreed.

And when I walked on stage at WGBH yesterday after this taxi ride I said something new to kick off my book talk. I said that you can boil “Customers Included” down to one suggestion – be humble. If you are humble, you will listen, you will include, you will learn (and what I didn’t say is that if you are humble and decent, then if you run into trouble, customers and employees are more likely to stick with you).

Stuart changed my talk. I’m grateful and I’m touched. I loved learning more about his life and creating a connection with him as we drove slowly through the snowy streets of Boston.

Phil