By Brian Van Bower
It’s amazing how many people I meet in the course of my day-to-day life who do not embrace the basic idea that the single most important part of doing business is how they interact with current and prospective clients. Way too often, I’ll run into someone – usually an employee, but sometimes (and shockingly) a manager or owner – who just doesn’t have a clue or really doesn’t seem to care.
This happens so often, in fact, that I find my patience growing shorter with the laziness, incompetence or downright rudeness I encounter. It’s gotten to the point where I’m getting pretty cantankerous about it, which is something of a surprise because it’s not at all my nature to cop a negative attitude with anyone.
But honestly, the insolence of others is wearing me down. And it’s all such basic stuff, this thing of having the right mental attitude and caring about communicating in clear, helpful and upbeat ways. Still, there are simply too many people who don’t seem to give a damn.
OFF MY CHEST
Some of those who don’t care are watershapers, but rather than beat that old drum, let me share a couple of anecdotes from other business arenas that make the point equally as well. In fact, I’d bet my bottom dollar that most of you could tell similar (and maybe even more shocking) stories of your own.
This first one is about something very close to me, namely, the shirt on my back. I recently rushed to our local dry-cleaning establishment, hurrying through Miami traffic to get there before the posted 8 p.m. closing time. I was feeling good that I’d made it with ten minutes to spare. When I looked, however, I saw a sign indicating that the place was closed.
I knocked and a woman came to the door. She opened it just a crack, enough so that I could see it hadn’t yet been locked. Just the same, she told me, “No, we’re closed.”
When I said that I knew they should be open until 8 p.m. because of the “hours of operation” placard, she repeated, “No, we’re closed.” Mind you, she didn’t say, “Sorry, we’re closed,” or “We had to close early today” for one reason or another. All I heard was a terse response that clearly indicated her fondest wish was for me to become scarce.
I said nothing and made a sullen retreat to my car, getting more and more upset with each step. As I began the drive home, it occurred to me that my wife Gina and I spend somewhere around $50 each week on dry cleaning, sometimes more. Any way you slice it, we have to be among the shop’s best customers, and I’m familiar with all the staff, including the woman who sent me shirtlessly on my way.
By the time I reached home, I’d resolved to bring the matter to the attention of the owner, which I did when I returned the next day. Pursuing things up the chain of command, I courteously asked to speak with the manager. When she finally stepped over to me, I politely explained to her what had happened. Her response was a terse, “OK, we’ll check on it.”
That was it. No apology, no expression of appreciation for my patronage, nothing that indicated any level of concern at all. In fact, it was clear that she could not have cared less about what I was saying. Part of me wanted to insist that she bring up my account so they could see just how good a client she was treating with such a dismissive attitude, but I didn’t, recognizing a certain futility in the situation.
VOTING BY FOOT
As I left, this time with my clothing in hand, I decided that I had just visited that establishment for the last time and would no longer spend my hard-earned scratch with a business that thought so little of its loyal clients.
Perhaps I’m being too much of an idealist here, but it seems to me that if you’re in that business (or most any other, for that matter), the need to maintain existing, repeat clients is perhaps the most important key to success. My (former) dry cleaner’s problems had little to do with quality: The service wasn’t perfect, mind you, but I was more than willing to give them my business so long as I felt it was appreciated.
And this abuse came from a small business that must put a premium on offering the personal touches that keep people like me coming back for more.
I might expect bad attitudes and apathy at a larger establishment, where employees seem to think that because they deal with hundreds or even thousands of people daily there’s no need to care in any way, shape or form. Hence, a second tale of woe.
Just recently, I tried to purchase a barbecue from a local retail establishment that is known nationwide for its all-encompassing inventory and reasonable prices (that is, Target). An online ad featured just the grill I wanted, so I called the closest superstore to confirm that the unit was in stock.
I was quickly connected to the garden department and a young woman who, when I asked her about the availability of the grill, glumly responded, “I don’t know.” To help her out, I mentioned that the product was in their ad and asked if she would check. Obviously displeased at the imposition, she punched a few computer keys and returned with the reply, “We don’t have it.”
At the risk of going that one deadly step too far, I then asked if she would check if the desired grilling amenity might be found at another local superstore and transferred to hers so that I could then purchase it. She said simply, “No.”
In this case, I wasn’t even given the opportunity to spend my dollars at the store on an item they had advertised. And once again, the person I encountered just didn’t care the least bit about it. And as much as I’d like, I can’t lay blame at the feet of the underlings who treated me so shabbily in either case I’ve mentioned here: The responsibility rests with the managers and owners who are too blind to see how disastrous these encounters really are.
WHY ARE YOU CALLING?
My point here is that all of us these days are looking for a human touch in our daily interactions. The world seems increasingly cold and heartless, but most of us still want to feel good and safe when we come face to face with others – especially when the outcome of that contact involves the spending of money.
In short, we’re looking for love – even in our business transactions – or at least for some sort of attention that acknowledges an appreciation for the fact that we’re willing to pay for a product or service. Certainly, there’s little that I or most anyone else can do on an individual basis other than to vote with my wallet and my feet and take my business elsewhere when I can. It’s frustrating, but necessary.
And while our watershaping clients face the same sorts of challenges and options that we do in our own lives, I’d argue that what we’re talking about when the discussion shifts to the way we run our businesses is much more profound because of the greater extent to which we reach into our clients’ pocketbooks and, for a time with residential clients, into their daily lives.
In other words, given the level of involvement and trust a client extends to obtain a watershape – no matter the ultimate price tag – the importance of approaching our client interactions with the right mindset is many times more important than it was for my local dry cleaner to extend me a bit of courtesy late that one evening.
To illustrate, let me return to something that truly frosts me – something I’ve encountered in the watershaping industry as well as several others and something to which I’m certain anyone who spends much time on the telephone can relate: Often when I call and ask for someone by name, the receptionist will say something like, “May I ask what this is in regard to?”
I mentioned this maddening question before in a column on phone etiquette, and I must say the message didn’t spread very far, because I still hear this one all the time. There’s a certain nastiness to that greeting, the implication being that the receptionist will decide if you’re worthy of an audience with the boss.
I generally resist the temptation, but as I said up front, I’m getting less and less patient every day and have actually said on occasion, “I’m calling on the remote chance that I might give some of my hard-earned dollars to your boss to help him stay in business, and you can patch me through in the hope that some of that money will trickle down to your sorry self.”
GOOD AS GOLD
Please believe me, I’m not advocating being unpleasant to others. As you can see in my tale of the dry cleaner, I do my best to work with people and am displeased when the negativity of others prompts me on rare occasions to be less than courteous myself. In fact, the real and very best response to this sort of treatment in any form is to work to do better in our own businesses and in our own lives beyond work.
In a business where we ask clients to spend tens of thousand or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and allow us to intrude upon their lives and onto their properties in processes that sometimes seem incredibly chaotic, there is an acute need to be accommodating and welcoming from first hello to final farewell.
The cynical out there may see what I’m advocating as touchy-feely gobbledygook, the over-sensitized gibberish of the modern age. But the hard fact is that in people businesses of all types, your pleasant tone and caring attitude (or lack thereof) will translate directly into business gained or lost.
Sure, by being upbeat you’ll inevitably feel better about yourself and you’ll have more pleasant exchanges with people, but if that isn’t enough to motivate you, then stop and think about how you react to situations where your patronage does not seem valued. In that light, it really does boil down to the Golden Rule and treating other people as you would want them to treat you.
What’s particularly wonderful about taking pride in your work and the way you interact with clients is that it has the tendency to elevate their view of what you do and, more important, of who you are. Whether you’re a high-flying designer or someone who digs ditches, you have powerful opportunities to influence others’ opinions of you and their willingness to work with you simply by the attitude you bring to the process.
What’s more, pride and courtesy are infectious: I’ve always found that a positive attitude leads others to respond in kind. That’s where managers and owners enter the picture most forcefully, because they set the tone with the policies they establish and the example they set.
Becoming expert at the vast craft of watershaping is not easy and takes years to encompass, but no matter where you are in the industry, you can use a confident smile and a caring and courteous tone to elevate yourself immediately to the ranks of those who care about their clients while taking pride in what they do.
Doesn’t sound half bad to me. In fact, it sounds all good.