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Customer Service: It’s All About People

Aug 22, 2022 | Blog, Small Business

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Before I get to the subject of this blog – customer service – I feel I owe you something of an introduction. After all, if I were you, I’d already be asking myself:

  • Who is this guy?
  • What qualifies him to write a blog about building and expanding businesses, marketing, promotion, advertising strategies, etc., etc.?
  • Is he an entrepreneur?
  • Does he have an education or background in business and/or finance?
  • Why do I care what this guy has to say?

Well, the answer to those questions is deceptively simple. I am, to put it bluntly, the most important part of any business: I’m a customer.

A fifty-something, middle class consumer who’s been deciding how and where to buy goods and services for well over four decades.

Someone who is, and has always been, selective about where he spends his hard-earned money. Whether I’m purchasing needed products for my family or checking items off of my personal want list, I know exactly what I do and don’t want from the businesses I support.

And for many years I supplemented my public sector job with a side business that taught me a lot about what my customers did – and didn’t – want from me.

I feel I have more information and insight to share with you, regardless of the specific nature of your business, than the average online customer survey or review.

I live in Clearwater, Florida, which is part of the Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolitan area.

With a population averaging about 2.4 million (depending on whether or not the tourists and snowbirds are in town), my little corner of the Sunshine State is teeming with business of all kinds: corporate skyscrapers, international franchises, mom and pop shops, street vendors, and everything in between.

On my five-mile drive to my day job each weekday morning, I pass between seven and ten gas stations.

Whether you live in a big city or a small town, if you think about the gas stations in your area, you’ll realize that they are all selling essentially the same products at the same prices from the same type of building.

Thanks to competition, they price their gas, coffee, granola bars, etc., at pretty much the same price as everyone else.

If, like me, you stop and fill your tank once a week, and sometimes pop in for a quick beverage or snack fix, it’s obvious that you’d get the same deal no matter where you went.

A $1.79 Zagnut bar is a $1.79 Zagnut bar, right? Regardless of where you stop along your route, you’ll get pretty much the same deal.

You get my well-belabored point.

Some people, it’s true, don’t really care where they stop.

One week, they turn into Bob’s Gas and Go for their gas, Red Bull and Pringles because they got stuck at the red light in front of Bob’s place.

The next week, they got stuck at a red light two miles down the street, so they stopped into Joe’s Jolly Java Joint for their gas, Red Bull, and Pringles.

BUT-studies show that the majority of people stop at the same place most of the time.

Maybe it’s on the same side of the street as their apartment.

Maybe their cousin Myra works there.

But more often than not, they stop at the same place every time out of habit. Consumers, like every other human on the planet, are creatures of habit.

And the thing about habits is, they all had to start somewhere.

Lots of small factors calculate into decisions like where you get your gas or your groceries or your mani-pedis.

Location, sure.

Prices, quality of goods/services, advertising, online reviews, and good old-fashioned word of mouth are a few obvious ones.

If you think about the businesses you frequent, all of these things matter to you and keep you going back there. But it’s my contention that overriding them all is customer service.

If you get your gas and morning coffee from a well-lit, well-stocked, immaculately clean place that’s just down the street from your workplace but the cashier is unkempt and lethargic, doesn’t give you proper change and seems annoyed by your presence, and smells like someone eating bleu cheese while getting a permanent in the septic tank of a slaughterhouse, you won’t remember the shiny floors and tidy shelves.

Instead, you’ll wish you had stopped at the old station that’s been there since your grandfather was prom king – the old cracked floors and half the letters on the neon sign burned out – for a cheerful smile and a friendly greeting.

I exaggerate, but you get my point.

I’ll share two very different stories from my life to illustrate my point.

I worked as a correctional office in a state prison for sixteen years. At my prison, we had four main buildings where most of the offenders lived: Units One through Four.

The Units, and the cells inside them, were physically identical to each other, and the same rules and practices applied to each one. Objectively, it didn’t matter what Unit you were in, everything looked the same.

But for reasons no one ever fathomed, Unit Three was the “problem” house. Staff who worked there nicknamed it “The Thunderdome”. Unit Three generated more disciplinary problems, incidents, and headaches than any other

 It made no sense to any of us: the staff who worked there were no more strict or lax in their duties than staff in any other Unit.

The offenders there weren’t guilty of any worse crimes than the offenders in the other Units. We jokingly wondered if there was something in the water pipes that fed Unit Three.

Why were offenders there so much more of a problem?

As work assignments rotated for most of us every ninety days, it was inevitable that I eventually became assigned to work in Unit Three.

The other officer assigned to Unit Three with me, Gary, was a good officer, and we both had plenty of experience dealing with all sorts of problems and issues.

On day one, we sat down with our supervisor and told him we wanted to “straighten out” Unit Three.

In our view, there were certain rules that needed to be enforced more strictly than they had been in the past.

Gary and I felt that if we consistently enforced the same rules for all offenders in the house, things would improve for everyone, staff and offenders alike. Our supervisor assured us he would support our efforts.

I was assigned to half of the Unit, Gary the other half.

He was responsible for enforcing rules among his offenders, and I among mine. During that ninety day assignment, Gary and I wrote about the same number of disciplinary reports on offenders for violations of those rules we were strictly enforcing.

Our united front succeeded in making progress in getting “The Thunderdome” under control.

One day, our supervisor told me that many offenders under Gary’s supervision had complained to him and filed grievances against Gary for abuse of authority and unprofessional conduct.

I was surprised.

I knew that Gary wasn’t causing his offenders any more problems than I was causing mine. He was no stricter than I was, and yet no one had written a single grievance against me, or complained to the administration about my work.

It made no sense. Gary and I were doing the same work and getting the same results.

Why were his offenders complaining so much?

My approach to dealing with convicted felons was a simple one. I had decided early on that I would treat them in the same manner in which I would expect to be treated if I were in their shoes.

Not with respect, but with civility and professionalism. “Mr. Smith,” I would say, “you need to tuck your shirt in and straighten your hat.”

Gary might tell the same offender something like, “Smith! Get your act together NOW!”

Gary was not a bad officer. I learned a lot from him. He didn’t break any rules or violate anyone’s rights. He simply had no patience for offenders.

Steve, I can hear you thinking, prison guards and prisoners do NOT have the same relationship dynamic as business owners and customers! That is absolutely correct!

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However, this does illustrate that how you talk to and interact with people does matter. Small, tiny choices you make, as a business owner, matter to your customers.

The way the lazy kid yawning at the register in the shiny new station matters, and like the way the old fella sharing a Dad joke with you at the run-down station matters.

My “side hustle” for many years was buying and reselling assorted merchandise. I bought goods at auctions, estate sales, yard sales, etc., and resold them. It was my favorite job ever, and I made a good, steady stream of side income from it for years.

I sold my goods online, through local Facebook groups, and at flea markets and similar events. One way in which I stood out from my local competition was to offer free delivery to my customers.

It didn’t cost me much in gas, and I got sales I wouldn’t otherwise have gotten by offering this service.

Doing business with a customer who walk up to your flea market booth isn’t quite the same as doing business with that same customer on their front porch.

In their own element, they are more relaxed, more personable, and more open to communicating with you. After all, they didn’t have to get in their car and come to you: you delivered to them.

Restaurant employees will tell you that the diners in their restaurant differ from the diners to whom they deliver. When delivering goods to my customers, I had interactions like this:

ME: Hi, Betty, here’s that bicycle you wanted.

BETTY: Oh that’s cute. She’ll love it. It’s for my granddaughter.

ME: Oh cool, glad you spotted it on my page. How old is she?

BETTY: She’s seven. I watch her when my daughter’s at work. I’ve been trying to get her outside, but kids these days just wanna look at their phone and play video games.

ME: Mine are the same way. I have to push them out the door.

BETTY: Well you saved me a trip to Wal-Mart, thank you.

ME: You’re welcome, glad to help you out. Now if she doesn’t like it, or you change your mind, just drop me a message, I’ll pick it up and give you a refund, no problem. (I always offered this to every customer on every purchase – almost no one ever took me up on it)

BETTY: I appreciate that.

ME: And if there’s anything specific you’re looking for, let me know, I’ll try and find it for you.

After just a year of doing business in a small town in Illinois, most of my sales were essentially pre-sales. Customers would say “my kid wants Batman stuff” or “we collect John Wayne DVDs”, so I would proactively search for these items when I was buying, knowing there was a demand for it.

How does my small-time home business experience apply to your online store or retail chain?

I think you already know, because, like me, you’re a customer too. You and I are more likely to frequent those businesses that make us feel welcomed, catered to, and appreciated.

Often we don’t even notice great customer service when we’re getting it: the best providers make it look natural and effortless. Ever leave a tip on a restaurant table and realize,” that guy was really great”, then stop and tell the manager, or go home and write a rave Yelp!

Review?

Chances are, you’re not raving over the drink special or the marinara sauce, no matter how good it was. You’re probably writing something like “Rita did an excellent job, she was attentive and friendly and took great care of us.”

Sure the prices and sauce and décor matter. But Rita is what you remember, and perception IS reality.

Without naming names, I can tell you that the grocery store I frequent the most doesn’t offer, overall, the lowest prices on all my regular purchases.

I could save a few bucks going somewhere just as close by. But I go there because the staff I encounter there are well-groomed, friendly, and attentive.

If I ask where something is, they locate it for me, and it’s done with an easy smile. I’m not made to feel that I’ve interrupted their work or caused a problem.

The way you talk, whether in person or via email, with your customers is at least as important as your prices and your product quality.

Yes, I know, you already know this, everybody knows this. But it bears repeating, because with so many other aspects of your business to think about, it’s too easy to overlook.

Some customers try the patience of the most patient and accommodating providers of goods and services. What seems unimportant to you may be extremely important to them.

They remember every perceived mistake or slight much more readily than they will recognize your best efforts to accommodate them. It’s an uphill battle sometimes, to be sure, but winning that battle can make all the difference in your bottom line.

You can’t buy a good reputation, and you can’t easily shake a bad one. Thanks to online reviews and social media, this is more true than ever before.

Keep this at the forefront of your working philosophy and you’ll find me in your checkout line every time.

Black and white headshot of Steve Gans.

Steve Gans, Content Writer

Steve Gans is. a content writer at Rise Visible and lives and writes in Clearwater, Florida and is a pubished author. He is a graduate of Western Illinois University and is owned by three cats.

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