Oct 8, 2007

Your Customer Is Not Your Enemy

Few things baffle me as much as companies who insist on treating their customers as if they were the enemy. Yet despite the clear illogic of the premise, this treatment seems endemic to many of our nations retailers and service businesses.

A few weeks ago, Wall Street Journal editor Laura Landro published her story of being arrested at Kmart for accidentally placing a pair of flip flops in the wrong box. Landro and her family had just dropped $800 at the failing retailer, yet instead of allowing the cashier to point out the mistake and apologize for the flip-flops all being in the wrong boxes, Kmart chose to arrest Landro. To make matters worse, weeks later, when she’d identified herself to corporate management and PR, they were totally unrepentant, huffily telling her she should have told the cashier she wasn’t sure she had the right box.

The week after, iPhone auctioneer Joseph Jaffe reported on his ill-fated attempts to return some games to Toys’R’Us without a receipt. Given the number of toys given as gifts (sans receipts) you’d think Toys’R’Us would have developed some sort of system for dealing with this other than an unempowered sales clerk reciting the mantra “no receipt, no exchange, nothing I can do.”

We had our own taste of this a few days ago when one of the Tadpoles was buying basketball shoes in Kids Foot Locker. A salesman had helped him find a pair he liked, but as we went to pay for them, the surly manager appeared at the register to tell us that “we can’t sell you those shoes.”

My baffled look was met with an explanation that they didn’t officially go on sale for another few days. But that was all she offered: it was as if I’d gone back into the storeroom myself and pulled the shoes out of a secret unmarked room.

Now all she had to do was apologize a little bit. Something along the lines of “Oh, I’m so sorry sir. We made a big mistake! The salesman should never have shown those to your son! Can I throw in a free pair of socks to make it up to you?” Just a bone to reassure me that the store was at fault here, not me. But all I got was a surly “Sorry, that’s the rule” and “I don’t know why he showed them to your son. I wasn’t there.”

Needless to say, the basketball shoes were purchased in another store and it’ll be a cold day in hell before Kids Foot Locker sees another dime from my family.

Which sucks for them, because with the Tadpoles fondness for athletics, we easily spent several hundred dollars a year there.

There are countless other examples of businesses that treat customers like enemies: airlines who feel that rudeness is their right and feel no compunction about keeping passengers stranded on the runway sitting in cramped filthy airplanes with overflowing toilets for 12 hours at a stretch. (The situation is so egregious that even President Bush felt obliged to promise to do something about it.)

Health insurance providers are another frequent culprit, denying claims that are clearly covered and then responding with a coy “Oops, hey you’re right!” when caught. (It being just as clear that they’ve been banking on a certain percentage of us not catching on to them.)

And I’m sure many of you will have your own stories to add to the list.

But here’s the catch: every time one of these companies screws us over and treats us like enemies they lose us as customers. And not for just a few weeks, but for life. And whereas in the past, we could only gripe to our friends and family about it, today, we are far more powerful.

We can blog about it, post about it, make scornful YouTube videos about it. And since this sort of behavior is rarely a one-time occurrence, there will be lots of us loudly griping about it. And lots of people reading about it and realizing that there are choices out there and that companies who regard their customers as enemies are never the right choices.

A perfect example is American car manufacturers, who are learning the hard way that a customers scorned is a customer you can never, ever win back. With more and more 2.0 outlets for customer dissatisfaction, it’s a lesson lots of other companies are going to be learning as well.

What’s truly sad, however, is that it’s completely avoidable. Treat your customers with respect and they’ll return the favor. Because where would you rather shop? Candy Store A, which has lower prices, but signs all over the place warning that sampling is forbidden along with surly staffers to help enforce the ban; or Candy Store B, where prices are slightly higher, sampling is encouraged, and staffers are well-versed in the value of a friendly smile.

Yeah, I thought so.


MineThatData said...

How often do you think the corporation is being evil, and how often do you think honest people are making mistakes, or honest people are having a bad day?

Anonymous said...

kevin brings up a point I was thinking while reading about your sneaker mishap. Sometimes, employees could care less. It’s probably not the brand’s policy to act like that. I run into the rudeness/indifference thing in fast food all the time.

If though, they’re on the ball as a company, and they check feedback on the internet, then a heads-up brand would likely respond. Also try chumming the Technorati waters with those all-important tags like "Kids Foot Locker, lousy service, bad experience” and see if a brand manager doesn’t invade the Toad’s pond.


Alan Wolk said...

@Kevin: Welcome to The Toad Stool and thanks for commenting.

The answer to your question though is "rarely." People get frustrated by a pattern of ill-treatment rather than a one-time "honest person having a bad day."

In Landro's case, could you imagine Nordstrom or Neiman-Marcus treating a customer that way. Or even Target?

I think people get fed up after a series of incidents and that many businesses clearly put customer service last.

If you make it a priority, there will be less "mistakes" and "bad days"

As for Kids Foot Locker (@MTLB) it's not the first time we've received surly service in there. This was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

LimitedTimeOffer said...

IMHO, short of the telecom companies deliberately hateful customer service, corporations do - of course - ask their employees to provide excellent service and generate a positive brand image. Unfortunately they will then shore up profit margins by reducing compensation, then act surprised their stores aren't staffed by top quality people who are motivated to help consumers...

Alan Wolk said...

@LTO: Good point. I'd add though that oftentimes companies put policies in place that make it impossible for employees to provide good customer service. By giving the lowest level employees (who are usually the ones dealing directly with the public) zero flexibility and discretionary decision making power, they all but ensure a bad experience.

LimitedTimeOffer said...


Yeah, I would a agree with that. It's quite a hurdle for companies to empower ground-zero employees and managers, which I suppose comes down to an issue of trust. Of course if a company doesn't trust its own employees it's not much of a surprise they act more like zombies than people. At least, that would be my simplistic take on it.

raafi said...

It's a shame because most of these companies employ millions of dollars in resources in tracking inventory or cooking the perfect french fry, but deliver the buying experience via 5-dollar employees. Better management can make up for this gap faster than almost any other strategy, but very few organizations, it seems, reenforce this value all the way down to retail.

Anonymous said...

Well, here's how one should do business. Before I read this I had just returned from a Whole Foods. About two weeks ago I was promoting a new health club and one of the sponsors was Naked Juice, makers of nutritional juices and energy drinks. And now there, on the shelf, now was Naked Juice. One of the folks that worked at Whole Foods asked me if I needed any help. His name was Assad. I asked him about the selections of juices and he gave suggestions. When I told him I had never had a Naked Juice before, he asked me to hand over the bottle I had in his hand. He then signed his name and said that it was on him and all I had to do was just tell the cashier.

I'm already a loyal Whole Foods shopper, but I am even more now.

Kudos to Assad, my new best friend.

Alan Wolk said...


That's exactly the sort of situation I'm talking about. Assad is empowered to let you try one of the juices for free. Chances are high you'll come back and buy juice from him. And even if you don't, you'll think nice thoughts about Whole Foods and tell your friends and neighbors.

So many companies don't seem to get the value of things like that. They're still in the "if I let everybody take an M&M from the bin, I'd lose $3 a day" mentality, vs. the "if I let anyone who wants take an M&M from the bin, then I build customer loyalty by sending the message that I value them and whatever money I lose on the free M&Ms I will soon recoup from loyal customers" mentality.

Such a world of difference.

Jen said...

So what is the follow on? If we believe in the market driven economy and the accountability is available to us, how do we enforce it? Our buying habits are silent, youtube and blogs are underappreciated by corporate america and complaint letters don't mean a damn anymore. So what is the new mechanism for turning the market economy back to a consumer focus? I tend to disagree that we are already empowered to change it. We need something additional, a coalition, a website that really gets noticed, representation that counts in front of CEO's, something to supplement our "I'm not spending any more of my money there" activism. I'm curious to hear thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I recently puchased a product from a large Local manufacture for a client. The original device installed at their location had finally failed after 25 years in service. I ordered a new device in the finish they wanted and after waiting the 10 days for them to produce my order I drove 60miles to pick up the order. I inspected the order upon reciept and the finish was contaminated and deffective, I showed it to one of the staff and was told "That is the style of that finish"!

?????? I could not believe my ears she was actually trying to B.S. me. I talked to SR. Management and thewy rectified the problem while I waited. Fast forward 2 months later the product failed in use!

Upone dissassmbly and inspection it was apearent that the materials used were inferior to those originally used for the products design.

I informed the manufacture of the problem, instead of appreciating the heads up I was again handed a line of Steer Manure!

I had a "cheif engineer" claim that the paper thin metal that was left after machining did not fail because the material was to thin to be machined.... no it was fine it was "special alloy" with a much higher melting point than Steel. the part was brass! I will never, EVER purchace anything from LOCKWOOD MANUFACTURING again!