Once upon a time there were entrepreneurs who cared about their customers. They understood what it took to make their customers happy and keep them coming back. Then their businesses grew and grew until one day they weren’t small anymore. Instead they became large behemoths that cared less about the customers and more about bureaucracy, CYA, policy and how to squeeze more dollars out of their customers. In the process, a number of their customers had experiences that were unacceptable and downright maddening. In this blog, I would like to relate several stories about encounters I’ve had as a customer of several larger companies. The names of the companies are irrelevant. What is instructive are the lessons we can learn as entrepreneurs and especially what we don’t want to emulate.
Let’s start with the airlines. The large domestic carriers are consistently stepping in it with their customers. One summer we made flight reservations on a major airline and then a few weeks later needed to change one leg of the flight. The airline’s website was impossible to negotiate to figure out how to make such a change. So, I called the customer service line and got into the queue. Thirty minutes later they called back and were ready to assist me. I was informed that because I had a “special” fare, I would have to pay the difference of $173 plus a $200 change fee. I protested and pointed out that the special fare was still being advertised on the flight to which I was changing. And I also said that I found it unreasonable to charge a $200 change fee for a couple of minutes of re-booking. The representative wouldn’t budge. I said that I would leave the original reservation in place and in the future, find another airline to fly with friendlier policies. The “haughty” young man representing the airline said, “All of the legacy carriers are charging the $200 change fee.” Wow! Of course we know this is true, but a statement like this sounds like blatant collusion. The message to me, the customer was, “We’re going to screw you and so are the other major airlines.” Lesson #1: Never use the “everyone else is doing it” explanation when interacting with a customer.
My wife and I were in Washington, DC and made reservations for dinner at a major national steakhouse chain. It was a Tuesday evening and when we placed our order we naturally wanted – you got it – steak. Well, steak wasn’t an option at this restaurant. They were out of every cut of beef with the exception of a low-end sirloin. When I spoke to the assistant manager, she said that there had been a delivery issue. Seriously? They do have grocery stores and meat markets in Washington, DC. My entrepreneurial instincts caused me to wonder why someone hadn’t simply gone to the store and purchased enough steaks to cover until the delivery arrived. I’ve been to other restaurants where the server or the manager has literally made a mad dash to the store and purchased something I wanted, and they didn’t have. Lesson #2: Never tell a customer “we’re out of that.” Do whatever it takes to ensure that the customer gets what he or she wants.
Here’s a classic. A national chain store closes at 8:00 PM. I arrive at exactly 8:00 PM. What do you suppose happens next? The store manager won’t allow me to enter and says, “Sorry, we’re closed.” So here I am, a ready, willing and able customer and the store representative doesn’t want to serve me. Adding insult to injury, I’m told to come back the next day when they reopen at 9:00 AM. But what if that’s not convenient for me? In this case it’s apparently more important to avoid inconveniencing the store employees than the customers. Lesson #3: Always remain open for business until the last customer leaves. And if someone else wants to enter and it’s after hours, by all means accommodate him or her.
Finally, here’s another one that I’m sure will sound familiar. I made an appointment for an MRI at a large chain of imaging centers. I arrived 15 minutes early to make sure that all the paperwork was completed prior to my appointment time. Then I waited, and waited, and waited. About 20 minutes after my appointed time I asked once how long it would be and was told, “We should get to you soon.” After another 15 minutes I inquired again and the receptionist said in exasperation, “Sir, I have no idea how long it will be before we will get to you.” I left. Lesson #4: Never tell a customer that you have no idea when he or she will receive service.
As our businesses grow it’s critical that we amplify our efforts to maintain customer focus even if it costs extra to do so. The additional investment will more than payoff when our happy customers continue to return and refer other customers to us as well.
This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.