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Compete For Customers, Not Against Them.
By Steve Curtin
Wednesday, 6th January 2010
 
Have you ever sensed an adversarial, "us vs. them" mentality from employees of service organizations?

Perhaps you were on the receiving end of what you would describe as rude or abusive behavior? Or perhaps it was more subtle—like dismissive body language or an exasperated sigh? Maybe it did not even involve you and was just something you overheard or observed?

Just last month I witnessed a supermarket employee chastise a customer in the store's parking lot. When the customer failed to return his shopping cart to a designated cart collection area, the employee called out sarcastically, "Excuse me. That's not where the cart goes!"

I get it. I know that supermarkets provide signage and make it relatively easy for customers to return their shopping carts to designated areas throughout the parking lot. And most customers cooperate and return the carts as requested. But a few customers do not for a variety of reasons: they have young children in the car, it's raining, they're in a hurry, etc.

Why is this employee competing with his customer regarding whose responsibility it is to properly secure the shopping cart? That's an argument he will never win. After all, it's his job to collect and return the shopping carts. That's what he's paid to do!

The customer's only obligation is to pay for his groceries. And we can assume he's done that. Instead of being admonished, he should be appreciated.

Last baseball season I was having lunch at one of the downtown sports bars in Lodo, across the street from Coors Field in Denver. As the game got underway, the restaurant quickly emptied as fans left for the ballpark.

About that time, three couples entered the bar and seated themselves at one of the many available tables towards the front of the bar. I noticed they were carrying burritos they likely bought from one of the many vendors selling food on the streets of Lodo prior to the Rockies game.

Within a few minutes the group was confronted by a server who said, "You can't eat those in here."
One of the guests, attempting to reason with the server, said, "We're planning to order some beers and watch the game."
The server reprimanded the group saying, "You're not allowed to bring food into the restaurant—even if you order something to drink."

From that point on, I was unable to make out what either party said because the comments were mostly under their breath. I can, however, attest that neither party appreciated the other and the group spent no money at the bar that day—and perhaps never will.

Now, I know that restaurants are in the business of selling food and that if every customer brought in his own food, then the restaurant would suffer. And most restaurants likely have formal policies against such "breaches of trade."

Still, is there another way the server could have handled this situation that would have resulted in a different outcome—one that might have benefited the guests, server, and establishment?

A few years ago, I was seated in the boarding area at Dulles International Airport awaiting my fate as a standby passenger on the last nonstop flight to Denver. About ten minutes after the last passenger boarded, my name was called and I was given a seat assignment and permitted to board the plane.

As I was the last passenger to board, all eyes were on me as I struggled to find space for my garment bag in the overhead bin. Just then, one of the flight attendants called down the aisle, "Ladies and gentlemen, we can only depart when this man is seated."

She seemed to relish in using a perverse form of peer pressure to motivate me to quickly stow my bag and be seated. As I had yet to make any friends on the flight—and weary airline passengers can be quite ruthless—I settled into a most uncomfortable center seat for the ride home.

Again, I get the airline's policy requiring all passengers to be seated with seatbelts secured prior to departure but couldn't this flight attendant have found a way to communicate this message without publicly admonishing her customer?

Always compete for customers, not against them. You've probably heard the saying: "You never win an argument with a customer." It's true. Even if you have signage to point to or a policy to support you, if you've offended a customer then you lose—maybe a little or maybe a lot.

The next time that you draw a line in the sand between you and your customers, consider inviting them to cross the line. That way, you can be on the same side.

Steve Curtin is a customer service, training, and public speaking enthusiast based in Denver, CO.  www.stevecurtin.com

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