How Businesses Lose Customers

Posted on March 3, 2014

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It’s the customer service, stupid.

Businesses of all stripes would do well to remember that customers are people, that they have actual feelings, and the customer’s feeling of being neglected, ignored, or scorned is pretty tough for the businessman to recover from.

Decades ago when I owned my very first car – a sporty little Buick which I loved – the employee at the service desk treated me pretty rudely.  Maybe she was having a bad day.  Maybe someone died.  But the result was that I was offended.  Then things got worse:  instead of trying to smooth things over, her supervisor leapt to her defense and told me I could take my business elsewhere.  “I will,” I said, and despite another employee trailing me out of the office trying to make amends, that was the last time I ever set foot in that business… and more, it was the last time I ever bought an American-made car, much less a Buick.  There are other fish in the sea.

Years ago, I visited Richmond with some friends and we decided to have lunch at the famous and well-established Tobacco Company Restaurant in Shockoe Slip.  I had been there before; the food was good, the ambience unique.  We were seated, then waited…. and waited… and waited.  Diners around us were being served.  We didn’t even have water.  No one noticed our increasingly obvious attempts to flag down a waiter.  After 30 minutes of this, we went to the exit and asked to see a manager.  My friend impressed me, calmly explaining what had happened and why we were leaving.  The manager offered to provide us with complimentary meals, but my friend emphasized, “We’re not telling you this to get a free meal.  We’re telling you this because you have a problem that you need to attend to, and we’re leaving.”  I haven’t been back to the Tobacco Company since then.  There are other options.

Years later, when we owned our first house, I went to our local Home Depot to buy new garage doors.  I went in there with every intention of spending four figures.  Then I waited for several minutes at the empty service desk.  I got someone to call the representative to come meet with me… several times.  After some 20 minutes of standing around the lifeless desk, I went to the front of the store and asked to see the manager.  Again, the employees made things worse by sullenly glaring at me while I waited, instead of offering any help.  Finally the manager came, and I explained.  He listened, apologized, and offered to get someone to help me, but – taking a page from my friend’s playbook, I told him the sale was lost, and why.  I will drive farther and pay more for good customer service, and this store didn’t have it.  I have never set foot in that particular Home Depot since.  There are alternatives.

Here’s where I was going to put a positive example of customer service:  Fischer Hardware in Springfield, VA, which thrived for six decades on the strength of its knowledgeable, friendly, available employees who knew when to help and when to let a customer browse.  They had a lot of hard-to-find items on hand, or could order them.  And I was most impressed when I was standing in line to check out, and the power went out.  The cashier didn’t even hesitate.  She pulled out an old manual credit-card machine, a calculator, and carbon-paper receipts, and continued to ring up customers’ merchandise.  Now that’s a real business.  Alas, was a real business.  A new owner turned it into an Ace Hardware franchise, and within months it was dead, closed thanks to inventory problems and laid-off employees.  I used to drive farther and pay more just to shop there.  It had been unique and people loved it, but when customers can’t be served, well… there are alternatives even to the likes of Fischer’s.

So for all the employees and managers out there, just keep in mind:  the customer is the whole reason your business exists at all.  You can make them want to come to you, or you can make them want to go somewhere else… and there is always somewhere else.

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