“The customer is always right.” That mantra was instilled in me early on at my first job in high school.  It was in small-business retail which emphasized service and the importance of our customers. Wouldn’t it be refreshing as consumers if we were still greeted with that philosophy? I certainly recognize the massive shifts in the retail environments, including online competition, shopping through various apps and much more. Good service really doesn’t take much and comes through in many forms.  In fact, those who “get it” and provide even an average amount of customer service are held up as exemplary today.

I’m not sure where it all went south but I’ve heard conversations about the lack of customer service among friends and relatives for quite some time. In fact, over the last several months I’ve been the “beneficiary” of today’s “service” which comes with a plethora of excuses for why it doesn’t take place.

Some blame the labor market, others blame the wage scale, still others just don’t seem to want to prioritize the experience. An employee’s current crisis or important task doesn’t always come first.  However, with a “choose your battles” mentality many seem to think it does. They seem to forget that their business and its success hinges on one thing – customers.  No customers = no business, it’s that simple.

In one instance, my wife and I had placed an order for pick up at a retail store. Previous experiences had been positive. We would place the order, get an email within a couple of hours and know our order was ready. This excursion saw us have no response after nearly 24 hours so my wife (knowing how technology can work, or not) called the location to ask if the order was ready and was told yes it was.

About an hour later, following a 20-minute drive, we’re at the service desk and being told, “your order isn’t ready,” (turns out nearly 90% of it was.)  My wife explains that she had called about an hour ago and was told it was. So, here’s the pivotal moment.  Instead of acknowledging the delay, our inconvenience, and simply fixing it, we were greeted with a terse “well I’m not sure who you talked to.”  Remember?  The customer was right. 

It got worse as we were told that “no one else works the desk, I would have had to be the one who took the call etc. etc.” That rationale continued for the third time, stating their position, and ignoring ours.  The implication was, we were not just wrong but lying about it. Mistakenly, I thought I had a teachable moment since I offer customer service training with my firm. I explained that the train of comments were implying that we were lying about making the call. Well, that didn’t go well. It was confirmed by another employee that someone else had answered the call. There were no apologies amid the excuses about how swamped they had been. We’re left thinking, “but I’m the customer, shouldn’t you care?”  It was downhill from there and included a couple of aside comments that iterated how frustrating we were being. A simple recollection that the customer should be valued and respected could have prevented a horrible experience for both parties in this transaction.

Another recent experience involved an email exchange and a request which hadn’t been resolved. Instead of simply rectifying the problem, I received a lengthy response that quoted previous communications and even ended by calling my business by a wrong name! Actions do speak louder than words and customers are giving us the courtesy of their business.  They need not be put to extra work to resolve issues within your organization and a simple thing like a name can be important to us. 

I can think of other times where inquiries were met with phrases like “you need to, that’s not our department, you will have to, you haven’t, or the absolute worst is we can’t do that until you…”  What’s wrong with these statements? They put the emphasis on the negative and responsibility on the customer.

Not long ago I was driving away from the fast-food drive thru when I realized I had thanked the employee, but they never thanked me, the customer. It’s a commentary on our customer service environment and the little things that count as we attempt to build our organizations.

It’s ironic that in the days of social media outbursts, yelp reviews, and other star-rated commentary, customer service has gotten to such a sad state. Customers now have the power to share their experiences with the world and we all know that’s more likely to happen with a negative experience than a positive one.  Your business needs to get it right despite the high turnover and “it’s just a job.”

Real customer service puts you in the customer’s place and treats them as you would like to be treated in the same situation. A customer enters your business, acknowledge them, smile, greet them by name, and ask how you can help. Scripted encounters are easily recognizable so keep it real.  Is there a problem?  Pretty simple, apologize, rectify the issue, and in some instances, it may be appropriate to acknowledge the customer’s inconvenience in some small way as service recovery.

Is the customer ALWAYS right?  Probably not. Should they be treated as if they are? For the most part, unless they are confrontational or disrespectful to your employees, especially if you want to stay in business.

David J. Fry, MPS,CDT is Founder/CEO of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg and author of Purpose in the Darkness. He consults with businesses and nonprofits throughout Indiana. He may be contacted at strategies@etczone.com

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