Saturday, June 27, 2009

We (Don't Really) Want Your Business: Taking Customers for Granted in the Sad, Bad Economy

People love to argue, but there is one thing about which it seems that everyone is in agreement: The economy is in very bad shape. In light of that, businesses and services should be trying to build clientele, reinforce customer relationships, and gain customer loyalties. In times of economic hardship, our best bet for financial survival is a revival of the local economy. Money earned and spent within the smaller community means a better life for all who participate in the economy of that community.

Recently, I went to take the Praxis I exam in Pittsburgh, and on my drive into the city, I noticed a sign on the electronic billboard of a hotel in Greentree. It said, "We Want Your Business!" It sounds nice, but do signs like this mean anything? I think not. In this world full of cliché and trite buzz terms, advertising like this seems hollow and impersonal.

In writing workshops, people often remark, "Show me, don't tell me." Recently, the way that businesses have been "showing me" their appreciation for my patronage is something less than desirable.

The most offensive of the lot is the Amsterdam Post Office. I stopped going in last year, but my mother still sends things out for me through that branch. When the people who work there are not on a personal phone call, they will help customers to a certain extent, but only when they deem appropriate. They refuse to give itemized receipts. They refuse to help customers when it is near closing. Sometimes they close ten minutes early for no reason. However, it's a small town. People say it's best to not make waves.

I went to McDonald's a few weeks ago with a friend. I ordered the number 10, a chicken mcnuggets meal with fries and a drink. They have a self-serve soft drink bar. The cashier gave me the wrong size cup. When I reminded her that I had ordered a large, she waited until I walked away and said to her co-worker, "Does she really need the large?" When my friend told me that she made that remark, I went to the counter to complain to the manager, who assured me that there was no possible way that the employee would have said that, and that my friend must have been mistaken. He is a very articulate person, and very trustworthy, but I went to sit down and eat my then-cold lunch. Within ten minutes, the original cashier came to our table and said, "I have to come apologize, but I didn't say that." When my friend retorted, and said that she most certainly had said it, she said, "Well, I did what I had to do and apologized, so if you don't want to accept my apology then whatever." Instead of leaving, she kept stammering around, telling me that she was pregnant. I spoke to two other managers, one of which ended up being the woman to whom the remark had originally been made, but the end result was that the manager sent the only overweight employee out to tell me that the pregnant girl was not "against fat people" and that she knew this because she was fat herself. That's no McExcuse for the behavior.

These two experiences are not isolated instances. I have witnessed employees at several local businesses walk into the restroom and sign their initials on the restroom cleanliness check list without even glancing into the filthy stalls. I have seen checkout lanes closed in the faces of the slow-walking elderly at Wal-Mart. At G & J's One Stop, I have had cashiers treat me with such rude and obnoxious behavior that I haven't stepped foot in their store since November. Last week, I went to Arby's, and ordered a Roastburger with no tomatoes. When the sandwich came out, it had cheese sauce instead of the cheese slice that comes on it. When I complained about it, they made me another sandwich, but put tomatoes on it. The third time the sandwich came out wrong, I asked for my money back. The manager did not apologize. She said, "You know, people make mistakes."

Yes, people make mistakes. They make them, and they pretend that it is the customer's fault. They make mistakes and pretend like they did not. They make mistakes; they refuse to apologize. Their employers refuse to apologize. They are not sorry. They are indignant. They are doing the customer a favor by keeping their doors open. They are providing a service, so they can be obnoxious if they like.

There are a few hold-outs, however. Merrin's Market in Amsterdam is one of them. Family owned and operated, Father Doug and daughter Natalie will order in anything, try to get anything a loyal customer says they're willing to buy. I told Natalie I like homemade pizza making ingredients. They sell out fast, but they get them in. They carry more flavors of the Starbucks Double-Shot canned coffee than anywhere else in Jefferson County, and have more zero-calorie beverage choices than any other store in the area. They sell good, homemade hot foods like cabbage casserole and beef & noodles, and their meatball subs are the best I've had in Ohio. But that's not why I spend my money there.

What really makes the difference is that when their employees make a mistake, they take care of it. They apologize. It might seem unusual, but they show their customers kindness – a kindness that should not be the exception, but the rule.

So for the McDonald's and Arby's, the post office and Wal-Mart, for the G&J's and the myriad other businesses who take customers like me for granted, I say: Talk is cheap; actions speak louder than words; show me, don't tell me.

When you deserve my business, I'll be back.

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