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.

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