Publix gets accolades for being at the top of the heap for great customer service among grocery stores.  Consumers Reports puts it #3 behind Wegmans and Trader Joe’s, neither of which are in my area.  Publix is clean, convenient, and does not cost you an arm and a leg—all table stakes in the world of full-service grocery stores.

But, my attraction is the entrepreneurial style of their employees.

When I go to the seafood section of the meat department, I do not get a tired, overloaded worker bee; I get upbeat Susan–someone with the style and expertise of a self-employed seafood expert.  “I just got in fresh trout this morning,” she will tell me.  Or, she might say, “My wild salmon is the best I have been able to get in months.”  Now, I know she probably did not order “her” trout or pick out the source for “her” wild salmon.  But, when she tells me details about what I am selecting and speaks in first-person pronouns, she makes me think the Publix meat department has been outsourced and she is the owner-CEO.

There is more.  The produce department will make up a fruit plate for a party and includes kiwi, mango and star fruit (three items not normally on their fruit plate) just on a phone call and a promise.  When I came to pick it up, the produce person just made up a price since he had never done a combination like I requested.  When we ordered a cake for one of our granddaughter’s birthdays, the baker let us drop by a special, favorite toy to use in decorating the top of the cake.

Innovative service does not come from people who are innovative; it comes from people who are free to innovate.  It starts with strong employee pride in their role. Susan loves seafood and it shows.  It encompasses employees with an obvious desire to serve and a strong willingness to experiment; not ones who only want to sleepwalk through a job obediently following orders while thinking about quitting time.

Innovative service also comes from leadership.  I stopped the Publix store manager one day in the middle of a store aisle.  “Where is the liquid smoke?” I asked him.  He smiled and said, “I forget.  But, Jason can tell you I am sure.  He knows this store like the back of his hand.”  Now, I suspect the store manager knew the answer to my question.  But, he spotted an opportunity to celebrate an employee at the bottom of the picking order.  Jason took me straight to the unique item I was not able to find…with a smile on his face and a spirit in his gait.

Innovative service is nurtured and sustained by leaders who share control, seek to support, and take charge of eliminating barriers to innovation. It comes from leaders who constantly ask employees for their ideas and input.  It originates from leaders who turn mistakes into learning opportunities, not forums for rebuke and fear mongering.  And, it happens when leaders nurture a culture that values diversity, celebrates uniqueness, and honors every employee regardless of their position.