Last week I shopped for a friend having her first baby in January. I wanted a special, customized gift so I skipped Toys-R-Us and explored my neighborhood, stumbling on a kiddie shop a few blocks away. I craved a shopping experience that let the little girl inside me come out.
Quaint and sweet, the store was both impractical – teeny plush finger puppets – and useful for new moms – a gigantic steel paper-clip to hold extra bags on a stroller. I spent an hour touching everything. My experience was marvelous up until…I spoke to the owner.
“Do you have extra tiger puppets in the back? I’m shopping for a newborn, I’d like one that’s not a floor model as it may have been touched a lot of times. Think you’ve got something?” I’m new to this. I didn’t realize new moms wash everything 100 times.
As soon as I asked, I knew it was a mistake.
Harried and stressed, the owner’s words come quickly through a forced smile, “Umm, we’re a baby store. Everything we get we sells out, so items don’t spend a lot of time on the floor. It doesn’t matter anyway. The more babies are exposed to the better, so it doesn’t really matter how much it’s been touched.”
It was more her energy, than her words. The instant she spoke, I felt like an idiot. She kept smiling strangely. Her condescension was clear, but why was she telling me how to raise a baby? Why didn’t she answer my question?
I ask again, nicely. “Yeah, that makes sense. My friend will probably wash it 3 times anyway! But do you think you have any extra tigers in the back?”
“Trust me, the more they’re exposed to, the better.” No answer to my question.
Okaaaay. I keep shopping. 20 minutes later I’ve bought my items and chat with Tron, the nice man who does seasonal gift-wrapping. I appreciate the complimentary service and express my delight. Better no gift at all than one wrapped by me!
I notice a ribbon missing from one gift. “Could you please tie a ribbon on that one too? I want them to look consistent.” Tron nods. Suddenly, the owner walks by and mumbles to him and walks away. Tron turns to me politely. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. Our policy is we can’t put a ribbon on two packages.”
“Did the owner just tell you not to put a ribbon on my second purchase?” I ask, incredulous.
Eyes down, he says, “Yes, my manager says we cannot do it. I’m so sorry.”
We are talking about a RIBBON.
I say that. “We’re talking about a ribbon, right? I’m a new customer. I appreciate the wrapping and would love a ribbon on the second package so they look the same. Please?”
Tron’s been here before. He slips me a post-it: “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a ribbon.”
It warms my heart that he would go against policy and risk his job going out of his way for me. No need for the extra ribbon, I say. He wraps the gift and I thank him heartily. Then I make my way to the business owner’s office.
I let her know politely, but firmly, my irritation with the situation:
“I’m a new customer, it’s my first time here. I just spent $110 in baby jazz and have more pregnant friends who’ll need items in the near future. I’m not requesting anything unrealistic. It’s a ribbon. You have a GREAT thing going to retain customers. His name is Tron.”
She listens, but not really. I see a pursed smile and vigorous nodding. She proceeds to instruct me on how business works: “If we did it once for you once, you may come back and expect the same thing next time. In our business we get very busy. If we did it for everyone, we won’t be able to run properly and efficiently. We’re happy to provide the service (are you?) but we just can’t give you one more ribbon.”
I proceed to explain to her how customer service works.
“I’m a business owner also. I pride myself on running an efficient business. But allowing efficiency at the cost of customer service is a HUGE mistake.The ONLY thing small business owners have going for them to stand out from the noise is a great product, a compelling story, and the way your customers feel. Customer experience is number one. My business #1 mantra is: Whomever we touch, the experience people have with us should be the most delightful and special of their day.
I don’t need the ribbon, but putting a new customer last, and not wanting to ‘break the rules’ is working against you. As a first-timer, you forget that the experience I have today determines whether I come back or not. I appreciate the wrapping, but to make an effort to tell him not to give me a ribbon leaves a bad taste in my mouth. To tell me that you’re too busy for an extra 6 inches of ribbon is not how you treat customers.”
What we can learn as business owners:
Efficiency and running a lean company matter. You should look at your expenses and know where to cut back. Pay careful attention to extraneous services that creep up and add to your costs. BUT…Do not do it at the expense of your customers. Especially if you have a customer letting you know exactly how they want to be treated.
If efficiency gets in the way of customer service, customer service will always reign supreme.
Because customer service is what customers remember! It’s how they feel about how you treated them. Did they feel special and taken care of? Did you listen? Tron made a supreme effort to make me feel special. I wanted to hire him on the spot, but that’s not good business practice. The owner forgot Lesson #1: Treat different customers differently.
A new customer is excited, nervous, hesitant. I was all of those things when I bought baby stuff for the first time. I wanted it to be just right. I wanted someone to cater to me, lovingly and enthusiastically. I wanted to be sure my items were right. I wanted to be sure the presentation – the RIBBON duh duh duhn – was just right. I wanted to create an experience for my friend and her baby, AND create an experience for myself, the shopper.
A business owner MUST know: In our noisy world, the only way to get ahead of competition, to beat low quality, low service – you MUST prioritize customer service. It’s the reality.
A new customer is an opportunity, a chance for you to OTT – over the top – deliver and delight and give someone an unforgettable experience. It’s a chance for them to say “I really like how I feel in here. I want to come back. I’m happy I gave you my money.”
That day, I loved the baby items, but wasn’t happy to give the store my money. Every interaction I had there was awkward, unprofessional, and negative. I won’t shop there anymore, which is unfortunate because I scream good service and products from the rooftops. It’s also unfortunate because right after I left, I went into a boutique where I was treated unbelievably well by a business owner who just knew.
The reason you treat different customers differently is this: Customers who’ve been with you for a while give you leeway when you make a mistake. Same goes for clients you’ve been with for a while. They know your personality, your intentions, know if you provide good service. If you slip up or make a mistake, it’s not such a big deal.
Do it with a new customer however, and you’ve tainted something that’s hard to erase. Smart business owners know to treat new customers as if they were family or close friends. If they’re new, don’t fault them for it – comfort them, delight them. When you do, they’ll always return..
I can hear Seth Godin now: “Treat different customers differently if you want them to remember you.”
To make it right, the owner should have done this and I would have forgotten the entire thing:
“You know, you’ve never been in here before. We’re so glad you came in and look at the cool stuff you bought. Your friend is going to LOVE these. We don’t ordinarily put two ribbons on our packages, because it’s our policy to put it only on one. But since this is your first time here, it will be our little secret okay? We’ll do it for you today because we’d like to welcome you to our store.”
And then Tron could get down to business. And I would have smiled and loved the business owner and told all my pregnant friends within 20-mile radius of the store to shop there.
But instead I’m sharing a lesson I won’t forget easily:
Treat different customers differently and take especially good care of your new ones. Do it right and they’ll turn into life-long ones. Do it wrong and they’ll never look back.
When have you experienced exceptionally bad customer service? Did you say anything about it? How did you handle it? Have you ever made a mistake with your own customers that you had to correct? Let me know if you treat your customers differently and how it makes a difference to your business. And if you know someone who needs to hear this right now, please share this with them. We help ourselves by helping each other. If someone can benefit from hearing this today, don’t keep it to yourself. Lend a hand and you’ll get two back. :)
Happy Thanksgiving to you if you celebrate, and big gratitude for being on the journey with me.