If Your Customer Gives You $20,000, Try Not To Make Them Cry

   Yesterday, a friend and I went out to empty all of the public garbage cans in our business district. A local not for profit sponsors them, and our volunteers maintain them. I don't wear my best outfits for this task, as I tend to end up with some gross stuff on my clothes. Torn jeans, old t-shirt, my husband's work jacket, no make-up, bad hair - that's my garbageman outfit. While we were emptying the garbage cans, a neighbor came up with her dog, so of course I dropped everything and became best friends with the dog. Because dogs.

I dropped everything.
I dropped my phone.

I asked it later if it would work, and it said no.

So, I blew up my phone and I freaked out. I own a couple of businesses. I'm heavily involved in community organizations. I freelance. I'm on my phone pretty much all of the time.

I drove to one Sprint store - closed for the day (Sunday). I drove to the other Sprint store and got there at 5:01. They close at 5:00. I didn't really know where else to go, and it's not like I could use my phone to call anyone. 

The store was locked, but there were still employees and customers inside. I waved a little bit to see if I could motion that I just had a question. The employees looked at me and then ignored me. One of them was counting money, so I figured I'd wait until she was done and try again. She finished - I tried again. She looked at me, and then ignored me again.

Completely frustrated, I went back to my car, figuring I would just drive to the next Sprint location and see if they were open. And then I decided I would try one last time. I went back to the door of the store and knocked and tried to mouth that I just had a quick question and showed them my phone.
The girl who had ignored me twice looked at her co-worker, rolled her eyes, looked at me like I was a crazy person and came to the door.

Turns out, glass is transparent and I CAN TOTALLY SEE YOU ROLLING YOUR EYES AT ME,LADY.

"Hi - I'm sorry, I know you're closed, I just have a question - is there anywhere I can buy this phone tonight?"

"I don't know. Maybe you should try Best Buy." And she closed the door on me.

Here's the thing. I've been with Sprint for over 15 years. My bill averages $100 a month. I've probably spent $100 a year in accessories/upgrades/etc. So over the course of 15 years, I've given Sprint nearly $20,000. 

That's a new car, you guys. That's a years worth of mortgage payments.

That's over 4,000 pints of Ben &Jerry's Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream. 

Basically - it's a lot of money

Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing. Maybe she was tired. Maybe, Sprint employees are prohibited from being helpful to customers once the clock strikes 5:00. I don't know what the answer is. What I do know is, when I think about where I want to spend my extremely limited income, I know I don't want to spend it with people who roll their eyes at me and slam doors in my face. 

I ended up going to Best Buy, where they were incredibly helpful, personable, funny and provided an overall great experience. I spent far more money than I would have liked, but I have a working phone, and I'll probably never step foot in a Sprint store again. 

A lot of people will say - "well, that's big business. You need what they have, and they're too big to fail." I don't necessarily believe that's true, but I know a lot of big businesses don't appear to care that much for customer service. What's really surprising is when small businesses do the same thing.

Approximately 50% of small businesses fail within 5 years, due to a variety of reasons. Although customer service isn't generally cited as one of these reasons, losing customers because of bad experiences is certainly a contributing factor. And the thing is - a lot of customers won't even tell you they had a bad experience. They'll just stop coming back.

I've managed small businesses for most of my life, and have owned my own for several years. My customer service isn't always spot on, but I think it's one of the most important aspects of running a business, and something that should always be evaluated and improved upon. When I think about what I want as a customer, and what I hope I provide to my own customers, I think about the following:

1.) The customers that don't spend a lot matter just as much as the customers who do. A bar I used to manage had a customer who came in three times a week and just drank soda. Three of them each night, three times a week, at $3 each. He tipped about 50 cents per drink. The bartenders hated him. On the other hand, they loved the guy who came in a couple of times a year and spent $150 and tipped them $20. The "big spender" spent $390 a year in that bar. The "jerk" who only drinks soda spent $546. Every customer matters, and some matter more than you think they do.

2.) Bad online reviews are a gift. If you're screwing up, most people won't tell you, but they'll tell everyone else. Be grateful for the people who are giving you the opportunity to do better. Respond to their concerns. Promise to give them a better experience the next time they come in, and then live up to that promise. Even though this reviewer says he won't be able to come back, it mattered that the company tried to make it right, and he shared that experience publicly.

3.) Sometimes good customers have bad days. In my case above, I wasn't dressed in my best clothes and was more than a little stressed out. However, I was still polite, and I was still a customer. Sometimes your kid throws ice cream in your hair right when you remember you have to pick up dinner at the grocery store. Sometimes you spill coffee on your cream sweater on the way to the vet. Sometimes you have a horrible day at your muddy construction job and you just want a beer. Customers don't need to dress the part in order for you to take care of them. I get my nice clothes from the thrift store and that muddy construction guy is probably going to spend a lot more money than me. Treat all of your customers well (even if you have to politely tell them that you're closed).

4.) Spending money on things we don't need is a luxury. I don't have a lot of disposable income, and neither do most people I know. If we decide to go out to dinner or buy a new pair of shoes or see a movie, it's a treat and we'd really like the whole experience to be great. A rude server or salesperson can take all the joy out of the luxury you decided to reward yourself with, and will certainly make you think twice about spending money with them again.  If you're selling what people don't need, then they don't ever have to come back to you. Make every bit of their experience worth the time and money they're spending with you, so they'll tell other people about it, and keep coming back.

5.) But actually - customers aren't always right and they can't always get their way. Providing good customer service doesn't mean giving every customer exactly what they want, whenever they want it. We recently had a group of customers who insisted that they were going to tell everyone how bad our business was and never come back again unless we stopped working with a certain company. I apologized for what they perceived as a bad experience, but would not agree to terminate our relationship with the company in question. The vast majority of our customers loved the company, their work with us vastly increased our sales, and we didn't feel that the issue that prompted the anger warranted such an extreme reaction - our business would have taken a hit had we ended our relationship. We were polite and apologetic with the angry customers, but at the end of the day we lost them because we would not do what they demanded. That's ok. You can't have all of the customers, all of the time - be as polite and accommodating as you can while doing what's best for your business, and maybe they'll come back in the future.

6.) People just want you to be nice to them. Say hello when they walk in. Ask them if they need anything, and if they don't, tell them where you'll be if they do.  If you're out of what they want, apologize and offer them something comparable. If you mess up - own it and offer to fix it. Compliment them. Ask how their day is going. If they don't seem in the mood to talk, give them their space. Make jokes. Treat your customers like you would treat your friends. By the time I left the Sprint store, I was having a really bad day. When I finally went to Best Buy to try and get a phone, I was on the verge of tears. I stood in the middle of the phone section like an idiot, just staring blankly at the phones and praying that mine would somehow just start working again. I was immediately approached by a staff member and over the next hour the four people I ended up working with at Best Buy were polite and funny and helpful. We ate Starburst together (which I bought at Best Buy because we started talking about candy and it turns out, we all love candy and Starburst is the best) and told jokes and instead of crying, I just laughed a lot. I bought extra things. I wanted to buy even more things, just because I was being treated so well. I switched my insurance plan from Sprint to Best Buy, because at that point...I hated Sprint and I was in love with Best Buy.

People like to feel appreciated and cared for - no one wants to pay for the experience of being ignored and dismissed and guess what? They probably won't pay for that in the future.

The Sprint store closed as I pulled into the parking lot, but it would have taken about 3 minutes to politely open the door, explain that they were closed, ask if there was anything they could help me with, answer my question, told me when they were open next, and invited me to come back then, so they could help me. It's not much, and in the end, the store could have kept me as a customer instead of inspiring this blog post.

I'd love to hear your customer service stories, tips and tricks! What do you hate? What do you love? Share in the comments!


Tin Foil Angel said...

We have had several awful (and damaging to different homes) dealings with a mjor cable company. We have had to have them for internet for Hubby's job (required certain things that only this cable company could provide for net connections). They have treated us like crap, over and over. When the local provider finally started "wiring" our neighborhood up a few weeks ago, we pre-signed up. Goodbye crappy service.

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Jessica. As a former small business owner, I can totally relate to what you're expressing here. I was doing high-end residential interior design, which NOBODY needs and it was so important to make sure the clients felt good about their entire experience working with me from the moment I walked in the door... As you know, it can be very stressful to be the one on the other end of that, mirroring the client's outrage about the flaw in the sofa that was delivered or the motorized blinds that aren't working and "feeling their pain," and then having to own the mistake (even if it wasn't my mistake personally) and turn the world upside down to make things right again. I always felt a huge gratitude that people would entrust me not only with their money, but with their homes and I worked so hard to ensure that they would have a good experience. This has definitely affected the way I view other businesses when I'm the customer, and I get so outraged when certain businesses (and yes, the bleepin' AT&T wireless company does come to mine -- that industry is totally out of control) just feel entitled to my business and my money, without even trying to earn it.
I'm glad Best Buy took care of you and that crappy day is behind you. :-)