When Doing Business Is Like Pulling Teeth

Pulling TeethMy brother called me yesterday.  He was angry and frustrated with a local car rental chain that appeared not to want to do business with him.  His company, a large and well-known national insurance company with a large and well-known direct billing account, was renting him a car while his company car was being swapped for a new one.  It seems that none of the offices of this particular car rental chain wanted to rent my brother a car one-way.  None of them “understood” the direct billing account that they promoted with my brother’s employer, and none of them were willing to take the initiative to find out how the program worked.

Frustrated, David called the national reservation line for the car rental chain and they made him a reservation at another location for 2 days in the future (time enough to locate a one-way vehicle); they promised that he could take the car one-way and they understood that this was a direct-bill to the insurance company.

Unfortunately, an hour before my brother was supposed to pick up his rental, the rental company called to say that they didn’t have a car, after all.  They had nothing to say about his having postponed his rental by 2 days to allow them to locate a one-way vehicle; they were mute when he asked “Why have a reservation system when you have no intention of honoring the reservation in the first place?  If I place a reservation and you agree to have a car available for me and to hold it until I get there, then you should honor your end of the bargain!”  No response.  Dead air.

Furious, he took his own car and is having to make arrangements now to get his wife into a rental so that she can join him later in the week.  The local office still refuses to honor the direct billing agreement.

“How are these people staying in business?” he asked me.  “And you know,” he added, “it’s not just this company…I see it all over the place.  Doing business is like pulling teeth.  I just don’t get it.”

I thought about that and found that I had my own “pulling teeth” stories.  Tons of them!  Contractors who didn’t show up for jobs; car dealers who ignored me until, disgusted, I left; doctors who failed to follow up as agreed; restaurant personnel who made dining in a particular establishment unpleasant.  And then there’s my neighbor, Cynthia!

Cynthia was annoyed this weekend when, stopping at a local convenience store, the clerk behind the counter agreed that the tourist traffic over the 4th of July holiday was great…but dealing with the locals was a drag!  She pointed out to the young man that SHE was a local, and that without local business to keep them afloat for the nine or ten months of the year that didn’t see a boost in tourist traffic, he wouldn’t have a job.  The clerk just shrugged and walked off.  Cynthia knows the owner of the store and mentioned what had happened.  The owner shook her head and said that she would speak with the clerk, but she also said something to the effect of “What are you going to do?  Kids!”

When I see a business owner release themselves from responsibility for how a transaction – interpersonal or otherwise – is being handled by their staff, I know that that’s where the issue originates.  The speed of the leader is the speed of the pack.

Most business owners will mouth all the business platitudes:  “The Customer Is Always Right,” “We’re Here For You!,” “We Appreciate Our Customers,” etc.  But sometimes you’ve gotta wonder if they really understand what that means.  It appears to me that business owners sometimes get it backwards:  They think that they’re entitled to our patronage for the simple reason that they’re providing a service.  News flash:  No one is the only game in town.

Your client has the ability to “vote” for best provider of “X” with his or her dollars.  And they’ll not only vote with their dollars by shopping somewhere else, they’ll let their friends know about it, too.  I wonder how many folks in town know of the clerk’s attitude towards “locals” simply because Cynthia mentioned what happened to a “few” friends.  Word spreads like wildfire in drought-stricken Texas!

When you lose a client, the cost to you as a business owner is not only the loss in revenue of that particular person, but is potentially the loss in revenue of their friends (and maybe their friends’ friends) multiplied over the lifetime of that client.  It also includes the advertising spend to attract another client to replace the one you lost.  Given the above, doesn’t it make better sense to focus on keeping the clients that you have?

As a business owner, it’s imperative that you’re inspecting what you expect of your staff.  It’s also mandatory that you set the example.  Make sure that your word is golden, that you’re prompt on your commitments, that you’re demonstrably courteous to your clients.  When you see that your staff isn’t towing the line, make sure to counsel them immediately.  Tell them what they’re doing right, let them know what they can improve upon, and demonstrate how you’d like them to handle that situation in the future.  Be consistent in your correction; employees are like little kids.  They’ll test the boundaries; knowing where those boundaries are is a welcome guide post.

Take the time to teach your staff to go the extra mile for your clients.  There’s not a lot of traffic on the extra mile, and that makes it easier for YOU to be the one known for going the distance.  If doing business with you is easy, you’re sure to have a vibrant, thriving client base happy to spread the word, and willing to come back for more!


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