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September 10th, 2015

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Customer Service In a Down Economy

Ian Thomas, Knowledge Level: All Levels, Keywords: customer service, customer retention

Customer's are the key to your business. Doubly so in today's economic landscape. That is why customer service is essential to riding through this slump.

In exploring what good customer service is let's first look at it's opposite. Last weekend I had a horrible customer service experience. I had just bought a house, in a new town and before I moved in this past weekend I started the process of painting it.

I had purchased a wonderful Soy based, Zero VOC paint from Sarasota Green Marketplace , and needless to say it was rather expensive. I'm willing to pay more to support products I believe in but I certainly don't have money to throw away. So before finalized the order I called my local paint store to see if they could handle the coloring and supplies etc.

Since I'm moving into the area I wanted to patronize the locally owned shop instead of the big box store down the road. I called them and asked if they could split up 5 gallon buckets of paint into smaller quantities. 1-2 gallons.  The man who runs the shop said yes of course and told me to come on a weekend when he was sure to be there instead of his wife since he was better and manuvering 5 gallons of paint.

So two weeks later, the paint has arrived, I go into the shop with my $200 5 gallon bucket and talk to the man. He remembers the phone call and say's we're all ready to go.  He then goes on to explain how he has the same product and I should have gotten it from him. He doesn't seem to want to hear that this is made from a renewable resource while the stuff he has on the shelves isn't.  Then while trying to figure out what colors to get, he keeps interupting me about his paint stripper which is low VOC.  I tell him that I don't need to take paint off, just put it on.

A few minutes later I figure out the first color, for the smallest room and talk to him about how much paint I should need. We both agree that I'll need one gallon of paint for this room. The plan was to get one gallon, get a feel for the paint and the color, and come back and get more collored. All the while buying the various supplies you find you need while in the middle of painting.

I tell him 1 gallon of green, he looks at me and nods and picks up the paint.  I go back to picking colors and look back over at him a few minutes later. What do I find? He's filling up the 5 gallon jug with coloring. I just went from 1 green room to 5! My face drops as I try to contemplate what to do with 5 gallons of justifyably expensive, impossible to replace in time, ruined paint.

I ask him why he didn't just do one gallon of paint like we had discussed over the phone, and had just asked him to do not 2 minutes ago. He looks at me like I'm insane.

"We don't pour paint here! Heck we don't even sell empty gallon buckets for paint. "

WHAT!?!?!? I ask him about the phone discussion, and about our conversation just a few minutes ago. He tells me that he can't hear to well and was paying more attention to the game on the radio.  I tell him how much the paint he just ruined cost me. Then he tells me that I got ripped off. Forgetting the qualities  I had just explained. I tell him that I'd like my paint back and will be going to Lowes. As we wait for the paint to mix he then tells me that "Sometimes a deal isn't a deal." Refering to the discount I was able to get by having it dropshipped to my office instead of fedexed to my house.

Frustrated I leave and go to the big chain store to see how I can salvage the situation. When I get there I ask them the same question I asked the first guy on the phone, "Can you break up 5 gallons for me into smaller quantities". He tells me no, but I can pour the paint myself into gallon buckets.

GREAT! Thank you. This guy gave me the information I needed to get what I want done. I didn't care about him doing it for me, just how to get my task accomplished. I did the rest of my paint shopping at lowes and figured out how to use the mis colored paint in creative ways in our house. Not what I was planning but at least the hallway walls have a story now.

So what's the moral of this story? Why will I never go back to the local paint store again, and encourage my friends not to go there? It's not because they couldn't do what I asked them to do. It's not even because the guy made a mistake that cost me a significant amount of money. Mistakes happen. It's because the clerk could not effectively communicate with me. When I called as asked him a question he must have been what he heard.

"Blah blah blah. Paint. Blah blah. 5 gallons blah."
to which he was thinking
'Me paint guy. I like paint I can sell paint. Yes'
so in accordance he replied
"yes, come on by we can do that for you, Saturdays are better if you have large quantities"

Which sounded like completely reasonable response to my question, so I assumed he had heard it and was replying to it. The reason I will not use this guy again is the look on his face when I reiterated the request for a third time. He looked like I asked him to use a live chicken dipped in chocolate to paint the mona-lisa on the chest of a rabid dog while wearing a bikini made out of peperoni. The fact that I could ask him to do such a thing was appaling. Even though I had already asked him twice?

When I work with a customer representative, for paint, online services, getting loans, starting businesses, or even milk at the grocery store I expect one simple thing. An effort to understand my needs and meet them. If they cannot meet my need all I want is a simple honest "Sorry, I cannot do that for you sir". That's all.  Don't lie, don't assume you know what I was saying even though you can't hear me because the radio is blaring in the background.

This man didn't get the 'big purchase' of the paint, that's true, he didn't have the product I wanted. But he was set up to get my continued business for years to come as well as the business of my friends and colleagues. He lost out on that. Make sure you don't do the same thing.

Business is all about relationship development. You build a relationship with your customers, and the first impression is the most important step in building a successful one. The first time a customer walks into your store, calls you on the phone, signs up for your web service, they are forming ideas about who you are and how you work. It's more important that the customer leaves with a good impression of you and your business than it is that they buy something from you. If you build trust and confidence in your customers the money will come and sustain your business for the long term. If you fail to do this then you better start checking the help wanted section in the classifieds.


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Ian is a financial services and entrepreneurship expert, with over 30 years experience.. Article on customer service, customer retention by Ian Thomas