What the Heck Were They Thinking?

How do you turn a big order into a zero sale? With rules, inflexibility and the dumbest actions that would horrify senior managers who allow these to happen. And you don’t only lose the sale, but probably also lose the customer.

I was at the airport, and in a hurry. All I had in my wallet when I hurriedly walked into the sweet shop was a R50 and a R200 note, but I just wanted some minty chewing gum. They were about R12 so I took out my money. But when I got to the counter, I saw a box of my favourite sugar-free chocolates for about R42, and changed my mind. Clutching various bags, books, jackets and my R50 note, I told the lady that I’d have to give her R200. She glanced at my hand, glared at me and asked if I was sure I didn’t have R4. I said “No,” and she said she didn’t have change.

I asked her what I should do, and she again stubbornly repeated she didn’t have change for R200. So I dumped the chocolate and bought the R12 chewing gum with the R50. Do you know what happened next? She opened the till to give me my change, and I saw a whole bunch of notes in it. I asked her why she couldn’t give me those. “Because I need change for the other customers,” she replied. I wondered if I had maybe walked into an asylum for crazy people!

Businesses often do really dumb things. Here are some more examples:

I have bought four different models of the same brand of laptop in the past few years, and could easily be mistaken for a loyal customer. So when my last one had a small problem with the power supply, I took it direct to the manufacturer, for what I thought would be a minor repair. They called me three days later to say it had died, but no-one could or would tell me what was wrong. Desperate, and ignorant of how electronic things work, I asked for an explanation of what exactly had happened to this two-year old computer that had gone in for a routine repair. The response was silence and apathy, and I’m sure they were hoping that I’d just go away.

At this stage, I assumed that it was one of those things that just happens to computers, and began preparing myself to buy a new laptop. I asked if they could transfer the software and data to a new machine which I would buy from them, but they said that it would be impossible, and I left with feelings of apprehension, disappointment, despair and disgust. A R14000 sale turned into a zero sale.

My dear godson, (who has saved my electronic life on a number of occasions,) came to the rescue – again. I think he examined the now-dead machine for about ten minutes, and told me that my software and data were indeed salvageable, and he would copy everything onto a couple of DVD’s for me. In less than twenty minutes, it was all done, and he helped me buy my next laptop – from a different company. He also told me that there was a good chance that the previous guys had broken my original machine with a “power surge,” and that’s why they were being so vague and elusive.

A few weeks ago, my car broke down early one morning, and the AA Rescue told me it would need to be towed in because the alternator needed to be replaced. As a mechanical moron, I thought, “Who better to replace the alternator than the guys who normally service my car?” Not only were they people that I trusted, but they were fortuitously about 7 km. from where I’d broken down. So I telephoned them and begged for help. Everyone was too busy, and it took 45 minutes just to return my call. I must arrange towing in at my expense, (about R600,) and then they would need about 2 days and an additional R6500 to get it sorted.

There was no sense of support, no willingness to help out a customer in trouble. I was desperate, and resigned myself to the sacrifice.

My dear wife phoned me and said she’d arrange everything, and I left it in her hands. She gave me a wonderful surprise. Not only had she arranged free towing by the AA (by looking at the booklet for about five minutes,) but she’d also made a couple of calls and discovered that my dealership would farm out the work to an auto-electrician anyway, and charge an additional substantial handling fee. By the next morning my car was ready, and the total bill came to less than R1500. That dealership isn’t going to ever see me again, and I’ll probably change the brand I buy.

I told the story to delegates on a course a few days later, and one of them told me the story to top all stories. Andrew had bought a double-cab bakkie, (truck,) and had spent an additional R14000 installing a customised canopy. Less than two years later, he decided to upgrade his vehicle, and trade it in for a better model from the same company, a model, which I might add, cost R390000. But the condition for the sale was that he wanted to take his old canopy and install it on the new vehicle. They refused. He told them that this was a deal-breaker, and they still refused. So he bought his car from one of their competitors.

What were the people that make these decisions thinking? This is the question that people asked me over and over again when I tell them these stories. Return policies, payment methods, limited warranties, rules and regulations, complaint management and recovery processes, small print and hidden costs in contracts, decisions made by front-line staff – all of these and more get in the way of customer delight and customer loyalty.

Of all the things we can do to build customer relationships, perhaps nothing is as powerful as bending the rules. Responsiveness and flexibility rank high on the list of ways to make a customer feel special. If you let the protection of profits determine the way you treat your loyal customers, it may drive them away. On the other hand, companies and people that are generous and willing to help, are more successful at building long-term relationships with their customers. These relationships lead to greater profitability, regardless of the price range of the products they sell. No questions asked. Just tell us what you want.

One of my favourite adverts comes from Jaguar motor cars. They come with a unique guarantee: “If you think that love isn’t a sure thing, than you haven’t driven a Jaguar. We will fully refund your money, if you don’t love your Jaguar.”

What a reassuring idea.


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