When I first met Lonnie, he reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Karl Childress, in the movie Sling Blade. Lonnie, a country boy from South Carolina, spoke deliberately and only when there was something that “needed to be said.” Otherwise, he was all business.
Lonnie serviced a portfolio of 120 business customers valued at around $520,000 in annual revenue. His customer base ranged from heavy manufacturing to service-based companies. He’d been with his company for 22 years and had been the number one route service rep (RSR) in the Southeast region (out of 220 RSRs) each year for the past 14 years, earning annual president’s club trips to Hawaii for him and his wife. For six consecutive years, he had retained 100 percent of his customer base. A retention level that was unheard of in his industry, which is notorious for poor service and unhappy customers. (The average customer retention rate in his region was 86.1 percent; at his location, it was barely 80 percent.) One hundred percent customer retention in this industry was impossible—except that Lonnie had achieved the impossible.
The location where Lonnie works (called a depot) is a union shop and Lonnie is a member of the union. The Teamsters fiercely protect the RSRs there from disciplinary action, stemming from providing subpar customer service. The management team at Lonnie’s depot is dysfunctional at best. They spend the vast majority of their time at war with the union and, out of spite, frustration, ...