Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Customer Is Not Always Right. How To Set Customer Service Boundaries.

I have been mulling over this post for the past couple of months because I realize some of what I have to say may be misinterpreted.  So before I offend both companies and consumers alike, let me state for the record I am known for my consistently commendable customer service.  I get letters, emails; shout outs on Facebook and Yelp.  And most importantly, I have a sizable amount of loyal clients.  So please hear me out, with the understanding that one of my main objectives as a small business owner and as a small business consultant is to offer excellent service that keeps customers coming back for more. 

I wasn't sure how to approach the topic of setting boundaries when it comes to customer service. Luckily an example of this was recently presented to me.  I like to call it “The Tale of Two Bands”.

This month I went to see a show of one of my favorite bands at a local bar.  I had meant to see this group for years, and was looking forward to the up close and personal experience a small venue offers.

I got there about half an hour after the doors opened and waited, and waited, and waited some more.  In the end, around twenty-five people came for the performance, and the band finally got on stage two hours late.  From the moment they swaggered on, they made it clear they were extraordinarily unhappy with the situation.  Nine songs later they walked off.  We all looked at our watches.  They had played for forty-five minutes, pausing at one point to break into a Blues riff, while telling us they wish they could play Blues rather than electronic music.   

After the show I spoke with them, telling them I was glad I got to see them as I have all their albums and have wanted to see them live for a long time.  I told them it was unfortunate they had been scheduled to perform in Boston during finals week, when most college students would be overwhelmed with studies.  This clearly made them feel better about the lack of audience. They told me they would be returning to Boston, and they hoped I would come next time.

Here's the thing: there won't be a next time. In fact I doubt I'll ever purchase another of their albums.  And I bet you some of the others who attended the show left feeling the same.  Those of us who were there to support them were punished for being there, not thanked with a great live show.  Their injured egos and abject hostility were a major turn off.  And in this day and age, no band has the luxury to turn noses up at their bread and butter.  Even with three albums under their belt, they should not assume they are safe from falling into fast obscurity.

Contrast this with a show I saw last year at a local club.  This band had been the opening band for Band #1 a few years before.  Now they stuffed the club to full capacity.  When they came out on stage and saw the sea of people spread out before them they were shocked.  One member said, “There are a lot more of you here than last time.” From there they proceeded to put on one of the best concerts I have ever seen.  The place was pulsating with mutual energy bouncing back and forth between the band and the fans.

I present Band #2 as a contrast with good reason.  Like Band #1 they have three albums.  Both bands began around the same time, and both bands are of the same musical genre (alternative, electronic music).  As I mentioned before, Band #2 opened for Band #1 a few years back.  But I don't think it is any accident, judging from my recent experience, that Band #2 has far surpassed Band #1. 

Band #2 had the benefit of a packed, enthusiastic crowd to perform for.  Their job was easy.  So let's go back to looking at Band #1.  Here's what they did wrong, and-given the circumstances-here's what they could have done right about setting proper boundaries while still providing superior customer service.

The attitude: there's nothing wrong with being disappointed about a gig.  I can't begin to tell you how often a weekend art event or the opening reception of an exhibition (or for that matter the public response to the entire run of an exhibition) has fallen far short of my expectations.  However, those who come should never be treated to less than your best.  After all, they are not the enemy.  They are the ones who were there to support you.

The product: as much as I enjoy Band #1, I must admit their music has always had a soulless quality.  I am a life-long new wave, alternative music gal, so years of experience has given me discerning taste, and I can tell you, their music is largely fluff.  So it wasn't exactly surprising to have them announce onstage that they secretly wish to be a Blues band.  However, it was a shock in the land of customer service that they did so.  If you don't believe 100% in your product, if you are not proud of what you do, you need to be doing something else.  Nothing should ever be done for a buck.  The customer has to buy you before they buy your product.  If you don't buy yourself you can't expect others to invest in you. 

The service: making your fans (and yes, even you should have fans) wait and then offering them only half-assed service for the time/money/energy they have invested in you is-plain and simple-poor customer service.  The last thing you want is for your customer to walk away feeling cheated.

I understand Band #1's disappointment.  But the solution to the situation was simple.  Instead of doing their normal playlist, they could have taken this as an opportunity to mix it up a bit, both for them and for their fans.  They could have gotten up on stage and said, “Okay, since you’re such a small crowd we're going to play for one hour.  Tell us what you want to hear.” By engaging us, the consumers, they would have fortified connection, and left us feeling like we had a memorable experience that was worth every penny.

Now let's look at what they (sort of) did right.  It was okay, given the circumstances, that they cut the performance short, though as I just suggested, it could have been handled in a far more positive way. 

In other words, it's okay to set boundaries.  No, really. It is.

The concept of the customer always being right is just wrong.  It is an impossible expectation to please everyone, and setting up that goal for yourself and your employees is only going to lead to frustration on both sides. We live in a snarky, needy world full of damaged people, many of whom don't understand what is or is not appropriate behavior.  As a small business you don't have enough time and energy to follow every client (or potential client) down the rabbit hole.  There are simply certain people that will not fit your mission and business model.  And guess what?  That's okay.

I know the value of investing in your customers-keeping them happy enough that they want to tell others about their great relationship with you.  No matter how advanced our society becomes, word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool.  And let's face it, it takes less time/money/energy to keep your current client base than it does to create a new one. 

However, it is vital you become savvy about who is worth wooing and who isn't.  During my professional workshops and coaching sessions I often tell creative entrepreneurs to be careful of the people who suck them into long-winded conversations at weekend art events and opening receptions.  I tell them they should get good enough at determining very quickly whether or not this person has any intention of actually buying from them, or if this person is just searching for a willing ear.  I provide ways for them to disengage so that they can devote their time/money/energy to those worth investing in.  This is not rude.  I think often, as small businesses, we think of ourselves as the beggars who can't be choosers.  But if we are going to truly value our time, our money, and the energy it takes to create a product and run a business, we should be careful not to squander. 

I have found people (I guess on some demented level) enjoy making what should be simple as complicated as possible.  I first discovered this while working one summer at a cinema during college.  Going to the movies is a universal experience but it was amazing how difficult the customers made it.  Asking where the bathroom was despite the neon Restroom signs.  Asking if we served hot dogs (or whatever...just as long as it wasn't available) despite the vivid photographs of food and the giant menus posted above the concession stand.  Often people associate customer service with unconditional hand-holding.  Unless you are in a field where caretaking is a major part of your job description, you should not be going beyond the call of customer service duty.  I've become skilled enough from years of experience to recognize quite quickly if someone is interested in investing or is just looking for some attention. 

Some tips so you can know what to watch for (and I say this with the hope that you will always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Cynicism doesn't go hand in hand with excellent customer service):

If someone is sharing way more information than necessary to conduct a business transaction, the likelihood of them becoming an actual customer, much less a long-term client is pretty nil.  For one of the businesses I manage I find newcomers who divulge copious amounts of personal information end up generally doing nothing more than taking up my time and energy.  For example, I received a series of emails from a potential client who felt the need to tell me about her recent life-changing decisions, her new diet and fitness regimen, her goals, her thoughts, her was information overload.  I scheduled her for an initial appointment, and what happened?  She didn't show and I never heard from her again.  So in the end I invested at least 2-3 hours of my time trying to be supportive and accommodate her all for naught.

It is those who approach your business then make a swift decision to purchase based on the information they receive that are most likely to be undemanding, loyal clients.

If someone is asking for everything AND the kitchen sink, they are probably not worth wooing.  I've had people ask if I will meet with them face to face to provide information that could easily be received through a brief phone call or email.  And these days I have no problem setting boundaries by saying, “I'm very busy so I don't think a meeting will be possible.  However all the information you need can be sent by email, or we could schedule a phone conversation.” I just had a woman contact me to tell me she had won a gift certificate of mine at a fundraiser.  Instead of using the money to offset the cost of a large piece of artwork, she used the gift certificate up to the final dollar on several small items, and then asked me (though I was already handing her a bunch of my stuff for free) to deliver it to her home-an hour commute from mine.  I treated her just as I would a paying customer, congratulating her for her win and her wise selections, neatly wrapping everything up, and then delivering it to her door-with the certainty I would never hear from her again.  I may be wrong, but when a customer starts out approaching a small business with these sorts of expectations, I don't bet I'm going to have an ongoing relationship with that person. 

Good customers appreciate the value of working with a small business rather than a large corporation while understanding the limitations involved.

So how do you start to set limits?  The first major step is to determine the value of your personal time/money/energy.  A good example of this is one a friend of mine, a well-known painter, shared with me.  Back in her early days she sold a small framed painting for $35.  The customer contacted her later to ask if she could repair the painting, it had slipped a bit in its frame.  My friend apologized but told her no, she couldn't.  She explained to the customer that the painting was inexpensive and in a cheap frame.  She suggested the customer take the painting to a frame shop if she wanted it repaired.

Now I know many of you, especially those of you who are in creative fields and barely scraping by, may be collectively gasping.  “Oh my goodness, what was she thinking?”  Well, she was accurately thinking that her time and energy is worth far more than spending a second more of her time on a $35 painting.  She was thinking her time and energy are better invested by wooing high-paying clients (her works sell for thousands of dollars, by the way) than making someone who paid $35 happy.  On the flip side, why should someone who has paid only $35 for something think it is appropriate to make such a request?  Again, if a customer is asking for the milk and the cow to boot, it's time to set boundaries.

I mentioned you should always give the benefit of the doubt, so a bit of chasing someone down their personal rabbit hole may be in order.  For example, if a customer isn't getting the message through the emails you're sending (some people don't obtain information through reading), a phone call may be the best solution, or even a face to face.  And if you still aren't coming together, if it continues to be a struggle to do business with this person, you must be ready and willing to let go.  The best you can do is to combat the negative word of mouth by making sure you part as amicably as possible.  This may mean you lose more than you anticipated: an unpaid invoice, lots of free parting gifts...but at least you did all you could.  There are times when you may have to say, “I don't think I'm the right company for you.” And there are times when you may have to just shake the dust off your feet and move on, knowing there's at least one dissatisfied customer in your wake.  Again, we live in a broken world filled with broken people.  Everyone has their own expectations, their own version of the story.  Your mission is to make the world a better place without becoming the rug it walks all over.