Twisting like a pretzel to please the customer

I have seen many small business owners exhibit a willingness to do anything for a customer, such as meeting at odd hours. I oppose the idea–I desire to have a life and I’m not willing to turn into a pretzel to please my customers.

Some believe that flexibility shows the customer that the business “will be there for the customer.” Is this really the message that you want to convey?

I doubt that business owners literally mean that they would do anything to please the customer. So where does they draw the line? Are they willing to give up weekends and evenings. If they are willing to meet customers at 7 p.m., why not 8 p.m., or 9 p.m., or any other time the customer chooses?

Some may say that my questions are silly, that we have to draw the line somewhere. I agree that we must draw a line. I simply disagree where the line should be drawn, and who should draw it.

While I believe that we should exhibit some flexibility in dealing with customers, it should be on our terms. We should establish the type of business we want to own, and then operate on that standard. I choose to have a life in addition to my business. I do not want my business dominating my life and preventing me from enjoying other activities.

I will admit that there was a time I would do almost anything a customer requested. And I was miserable. My life was being dictated by the desires of others. And when I finally realized this and established set work hours, a funny thing happened—customers were generally accommodating. We occasionally lose a lead, but it is rather infrequent. Just as customers find a way to accommodate the cable guy, or the phone company, or a multitude of other service providers, they can find a way to accommodate us as well.

Sometimes the customer is wrong

A common phrase in business is “the customer is always right”. Not only is this incorrect, it could also spell disaster if a company truly took it to heart.

Customers are neither infallible nor omniscient, which is really what that phrase means. A company that acts as if they are opens itself to any and all demands, including the most inane.

The premise underlying this phrase is that a business should do whatever it takes to make a customer happy. While you certainly want satisfied customers, if that satisfaction means abandoning principles and giving away the farm, it might be good to have a dissatisfied customer.

I see a lot of small business owners fall victim to the “customer is always right.” The customer often uses their trump card—“You are the professional, you should have known.” On the surface this seems plausible, and it can quickly disarm the small business owner.

In an ironic twist, such claims actually mean that the owner should be omniscient and infallible. Such a standard is irrational for a business owner and the customer alike.

This is where good communications and a well-written documents are crucial. The business owner/ salesman must endeavor to fully understand the customer’s desires and set reasonable expectations. He must help the customer understand what to expect, as well as any factors that might impede achieving those expectations.

Good communications will help avoid most problems, and reduce the significance of those that do arise. It will also help you identify, and avoid, customers who believe that they are always right.

Empowering employees to deliver customer service

Bill Hogg tells how Home Depot impressed him because an employee was empowered. An employee offered to discount an item to match a sale price. When asked why he did this, the employee responded, “I am empowered to make our customers happy”.

This may seem like a simple thing, and in many ways it is. But are your employees empowered to make customers happy? Certainly, we don’t want employees arbitrarily discounting prices or caving to every demand made by a customer, but there are many other ways to make a customer happy. And we must empower our employees to do so.

While systems and procedures can provide structure and guidelines, they are not enough. Systems and procedures cannot address every possible situation that might arise, particularly when dealing with customers. In an unusual situation, it can become easy for an employee to “go by the book” and fail to make the customer happy. We must do more than tell our employees what we want them to do. We must also explain why—the result that we desire.

When an employee understands the desired result he is better equipped to deal with these situations. He is empowered to exercise his own judgment when the situation calls for it.

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