Guest post by Michael Bailey
Veronica is busy in the studio this week with some much-needed stock-building for her very active spring season (CTRF’s Robin Hood Springtime Faire, Mutton and Mead, and ConnectiCon are within weeks of one another), so I’m filling in on blogging duty this week.
Fortunately, I had ready inspiration for a topic, based on some headaches experienced by my wife and one of her fellow Etsy vendors due to some less-than-pleasant customer issues.
Veronica had it easy: she only had a customer complain about a late order (which showed up today, as it happened). Her friend, however, got an unreasonably hard time from a customer who was apparently unhappy with the fact she had a medical issue that laid her up for several days and left her unable to work. The customer actually went so far as to accuse her of faking the illness.
That’s thankfully a rare and extreme example, but it’s nevertheless an unavoidable fact that rude customers are out there. No matter what kind of business you run or work for, they’re out there and they will eventually find you.
The challenge for owners of very small businesses — I’ll call them “micro-businesses” — when dealing with rude customers is much greater than for big companies, which can better afford to lose a patron here and there; small businesses don’t have the luxury of shrugging off the loss of even one customer, so customer service is paramount, and more numerous and generous concessions have to be made in the name of the greater good that is customer retention.
That said, this does not mean “the customer is always right,” because they aren’t, not always.
Fun fact: the phrase “the customer is always right” is credited to two men, American Marshall Field and Brit Harry Gordon Selfridge, who used the motto at their respective department stores to motivate their staffs into providing top-notch customer service. In other words, it was meant as a guide for employees, not as a law for customers.
Yet during my retail monkey days I encountered many a customer who expected their every request, no matter how unreasonable, to be honored, no questions asked, no resistance given. In the context of a micro-business I’m not going to chalk this sort of behavior up to an entitlement attitude or extreme frugality or basic rudeness; I’m going to chalk it up to the fact they honestly have no idea what they’re dealing with.
They don’t know that the person waiting on them, answering their questions, ringing up their purchases, and yeah, on occasion responding to outrageous demands and insulting comments with as much good cheer as they can muster is also the owner and, in many cases, the only full-time employee.
They don’t know that the goods they’re looking at are not mass-produced in China for pennies on the dollar and then marked up outrageously, but created from materials purchased at retail prices — because wholesalers don’t much care to do business with these kinds of one-man band outfits — and assembled by hand by one person.
They don’t understand that when they try to haggle the price down, they’re essentially asking the business owner to sacrifice the money they need for their daily living expenses — rent, food, car payments, gas, health insurance, et cetera — in addition to the overhead costs of running their business.
They don’t understand that there are things beyond the business owner’s control, like whether the US Postal Service is going to deliver the order on time, or at all, or whether a winter storm is going to take out the power, rendering the business owner incapable of making his or her goods or checking e-mail for orders.
They don’t understand that life happens to micro-business owners, just like life happens to everyone else, and that life can effectively cripple a micro-business for hours, days, weeks, or longer because it’s taken out the only person who does all the work.
Running a micro-business is hard, sometimes thankless, frequently scary stuff, and as much as they need customers in quantity, they could also use customers of quality, people who support the person behind the business not just with their spending, but with their patience and understanding and empathy on those occasions when things don’t run perfectly.