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Customers: Who Needs Them?

My son and I walked into our neighborhood big-box hardware store recently. We were working on a home project – running electricity out to a deck – and I needed five 10-foot sticks of metal conduit. We walked into the electrical section of the store, found the conduit and the spot on the rack that had the size I needed. A sign there read, “We always have 260 pieces in stock.” The rack was empty.

I found an associate and asked him to get me five sticks. He disappeared into the back. When he returned – empty-handed – he informed me that they were out.  I referenced the sign that said they “always have 260 pieces in stock.”  He said they were out. I asked him what he could do for me since they had advertised that they “always have 260 pieces in stock.” He said they were out.
I asked him to get his manager.

At this point, my son was starting to distance himself from me. He has seen this scenario play out before.

The associate had the manager on the phone. The manager said they were out.  I asked him to explain to me what compensation there was for breaking their promise to “always have 260 pieces in stock.”  There was none. They were out. The manager hung up.

I asked the associate to walk with me to the rack and remove the sign. He wouldn’t.  I asked him if it was common practice for this store to falsely advertise (my son is now disavowing any knowledge of my existence). The associate suggested I drive to one of their other stores.

Once in the truck – and on the way to a competing store – my son asked me why I always act like that in those situations. That’s when I realized I had just been given the opportunity for what parents sometimes call a “teaching moment.”

Rather than rant on about the incredible lack of service, disregard for customers and need for serious customer service training in this store ‑ well, I did go on a bit ‑ I talked more about the industry I am in and how, for us, the relationship with our clients is everything.

I talked about how deadline intensive our business is and how you just don’t miss a show. How providing the fast, efficient, fair and responsive service is what we are all about and how our very survival is based on being able to perform logistical miracles on a regular basis. I told him that I have become much less tolerant of poor service ‑ like he hadn’t figured that out ‑ as I have become more aware of our company’s need to delight our clients.

I cited the commonly held theory that a satisfied client tells five people, while a dissatisfied one tells 16, or something like that.  In a small, local business that can be devastating. In a large big-box hardware store it should still be devastating.

Then I went back to talking about the hardware store and suggested a few scenarios that could have made the situation better and given me reason to write a completely different story.

1. The associate could have been trained and empowered to provide me with a coupon for a discount on my next purchase or a credit for the value of my intended purchase.
2. The manager should have been trained to respond to his associate with something like “ask the customer to wait a second, I’ll be right there;” and then he could have apologized for the fact that they were out of stock and offered me a coupon for a discount on my next purchase or a credit for the value of my intended purchase.

In either case, the message they would send is that “we care about you, Mr. Customer, and we want to make it right.”  Instead, what they were saying to me was “we really don’t care where you buy your hardware.”

Think for a moment about what could have been verses what really happened. Now imagine how long you would be in business if you treated your clients the way I was treated. There’s just too much competition, and clients are too smart to not treat every client like they are your most important client ‑ because they are.

I’ve hit this topic – serving our existing customers well – a lot since our economy tanked, and I am continually amazed at how poorly some companies do it. Seems like if you were really good at taking care of clients, you could really do a lot to build your client base right now.

For the record, my son now has a better understanding of my behavior in those situations, and I had the chance for a teaching moment. That doesn’t mean he won’t slip slowly away the next time it happens, though.

See you on the show floor.

Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 28 years, both as a corporate trade show manager and exhibit house executive.  He is now a partner in a trade show and event marketing firm: Reveal: Exhibiting a World of Difference.  He can be reached at jobermeyer@revealexhibits.com.

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