To clean or not to clean a competitor's cooler? That was the question.

As I was drenched in sweat, cleaning the glass window of a newly installed Coca-Cola cooler to ensure the view for consumers was free and clear, someone posed a question to me that I deemed rather philosophical.

We had just installed a new cooler and filled it neatly with Coca-Cola beverages. As I sprayed and wiped down the cooler front, she asked me if I would clean our competitor’s cooler, which sat right next to our cooler while I was at it.

My initial thoughts were:

"Is she kidding?" She wasn't smiling.

"Do I just say no?" How would she react?

"Would it be kosher for me to say yes?"

Reading this you may be thinking, “Who was ‘she’, anyway”? 

Well, let's back up.

I volunteered to do a “Merchandising Impact Team” (MIT for short), which is a coordinated team of Coca-Cola employees who work all-hands-on-deck in a given territory and timeframe to set up advertising, displays and equipment for Coca-Cola products in stores. This particular MIT was in Zacapa, Guatemala. One of the goals of the MIT was to place more than 250 new and inviting Coca-Cola coolers throughout Zacapa stores to serve the variety of products in The Coca-Cola Company portfolio, also making a positive impact on the bottom lines of local store owners.

I landed in Guatemala City for the MIT on a Sunday, then traveled the nearly three-hour route to Zacapa, along which all buildings, bodegas and neighborhoods seemed to disappear after about an hour on the road, giving way to only mountains along either side of a curvy thoroughfare. Eventually, buildings and denser communities begin reappearing.

At dinner, I got to meet the local team I was assigned to work with, and I also picked up my backpack and booklet with our plans and supplies for the week, including planograms and diagrams for proper cooler setup. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I was surprised when I dumped out the tools in my backpack to find, among other things, an enormous hammer, a large stapler, masking tape and rags. Nevertheless, I was pumped up by the energy of the local team and ready to do my part, whatever it was.

That energy continued into the next morning, with a 5:30 am breakfast embellished with loud music, legendary Guatemalan coffee and the occasional sound of a snare drum branded with the Coca-Cola logo. If only daily breakfast at home could provide as much stimulus!

We ended up needing every ounce of it.

After breakfast each morning, we split into teams of four to visit numerous small “mom-and-pop” shops throughout Zacapa, navigating over what seemed like thousands of speed bumps en route. Soon, it became evident why we needed those tools in my backpack. We installed posters, point-of-sale promotions, racks and coolers, and cleaned up the shops at the end of every visit.

We also took a team selfie with the store owners at the conclusion of each visit, making sure to capture the new Coca-Cola display in the frame. In many cases, the owners were the most excited to have a new setup that will attract more business. Some outlets in Zacapa sold Coca-Cola products out of consumer refrigerators not unlike the ones most of us have in our kitchens. That meant customers would not be able to see the product options to decide what they would like to try. We were able to remedy that issue, which meant for me quite the literal heavy lifting in moving old equipment to a different location in the shop in order to make way for the new.

Although it sounds cliché, after setting up stores and sweating in the 90-plus degree heat in Zacapa, I literally could not imagine a better or more refreshing sight in the world than an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Perhaps staring at the new “Siente el Sabor” ("Taste the Feeling") ads while I hammered them in had something to do with this as well.

After about 40 selfies with the team representing nearly 40 outlets that we set up, I realized that I had learned what it truly means to be a Coca-Cola representative. The primary lesson for me is that it absolutely has everything to do with customer service. The customer is always right, and we always serve our customers, whether that means getting their input on products they prefer to sell, locations in the store they want equipment placed to complement other goods in their shops, etc.

This all leads me back to my original question: To clean or not to clean a competitor's cooler?

“She” who asked me to do this was the store owner of a shop near Parque Central in Zacapa. She asked me to clean the competitor’s cooler after she saw me cleaning the glass window on her new Coca-Cola cooler.

After all of those initial thoughts ran through my head, my answer became automatic. What I had learned in one day with the amazingly dedicated Coca-Cola Zacapa team – if nothing else – was how to do customer service the Coca-Cola way. As a Coca-Cola representative, you serve your customer in the most helpful way possible.

While I did not touch any of the competitor’s products inside the cooler (which were not nearly as organized and thoughtfully laid out as ours were by the way), I did clean the glass window on the competitor’s machine. Although before doing it, I couldn’t help but share with the store owner, “Voy a limpiarla, pero me duele!”, which is to say I am going to clean it, but it hurts me!

Jamal Booker is manager of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company