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Sunday 27 June 2004

The Customer Service Rules

I have brought all the Tinotopia rules for retailers together in one post. Some of them have been revised slightly for clarity.

I started this list in November 2002 after three days in a row of particularly frustrating trips to the mall. By November 2002, everyone was complaining an economic downturn, and telling me that staff cutbacks were the reason why it was so hard to spend money in their stores.

Of course, a few years earlier, at the height of the boom, the same people had told me that I was having such a hard time because they couldn’t manage to hire enough people because there were so many other opportunities for would-be clerks.

As I said in the original Rules for Retailers post: I don’t say these things because I hate retailers, or because I think that I, as a customer, am some sort of god. I say these things because, if you are in business, you are probably in business to make money. Customers give you money in exchange for goods and services. Treating your customers well will make it more likely that they will give you money.

And now for the rules:

  1. Nobody is forcing you to do this. If dealing with the whims of customers is just too much bother, or not profitable, or boring: do something else. You are under no compulsion to remain at your current job or in your current line of business. These rules apply to you because you choose to put yourself in a situation where your profit depends on customers.
  2. Be prepared to deal with customers during the whole of the hours of business posted on your door. If you are a restaurant, you are not allowed to start stacking the chairs on the tables before your official hour of closing. You are not permitted to perform any regular mopping, vacuuming, or other periodic day-end cleaning until the customers are done and out of there. During your regular hours of business, the entire purpose of your enterprise is the direct sale of goods and services to customers. Housekeeping, bookkeeping, restocking, re-arranging, and ready-to-leave-getting should be done after the customers are done and you have their money. If business is so slow that it’s not worth actually being prepared for customers during the last hour you’re open, or worth paying your employees past closing time to take care of the housekeeping, maybe you’re staying open too late, or charging too much, or selling something that nobody wants. Or maybe your would-be customers just don’t feel like dodging the cleaning crews while trying to spend money.
  3. Don’t make customers work for the privilege of giving you money. If you do not have enough staff to handle your normal customer traffic, you do not have enough staff, full stop. If you cannot afford to hire enough people to handle the business you’re getting, you’re not charging enough for whatever it is you’re selling. Some customers are willing to do a lot of work in order to save money — witness the success of Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s Wholesale Club, etc. — but if your premises have carpeted floors and non-fluorescent lighting, and if you don’t market yourself as a discount warehouse, you should be doing the work, not the customer.
  4. Let customers evaluate potential purchases. If you’re selling an electronic gadget, the unit on display must be operable. The customer is not considering purchasing that digital camera as an objet d’art. While its physical appearance and mass are one of the things the customer will consider in evaluating it, they are not the main things. This goes triple if you make people jump through hoops to return purchases, or if you charge a ‘restocking fee’.
  5. Do not hound customers with ‘service’. If you are selling extremely complex and specific goods, or something that’s locked away, you may approach the customer immediately upon his entrance to your place of business. If, however, you are in the business of selling sweaters, shoes, trousers, hats, objets d’art ‘gifts’, or some other goods the selection of which depends largely on personal taste, back off. It’s a fine line between being available and helpful, and being obsequious and intrusive; but there definitely is a line, and with just a little attention it is possible to avoid crossing it.
  6. Help customers when customers need it. When customers do need assistance, it should be available, and it should be competent. On a very basic level: if you run a large department store with only one or two centralized cash desks per floor, they should constantly have enough staff to handle the customer traffic. Once a customer has carried his selections to the desk (see above about making customers do your work), he should not have to stand around waiting.
  7. You must know the price of things, and make this information available to your customer. It’s said that everything has its price, but this isn’t always true in the retail sector these days. Unless you intend for every transaction to involve some bargaining to arrive at a price, the prices of all your goods must be clearly marked for the customers. If a customer has to ask your the price of an item, you have failed. If, at the till, you can’t determine the price of an item, you have utterly failed. The only honorable way out of this situation is to ask the customer what he’d like to pay, and accept his offer without question. This may get expensive, but it’s easy to prevent: have enough respect for your customers to let them evaluate a product in light of its price.
  8. Your corporate structure, policies, and organization are of no concern to your customer. Your relationship with the customer consists of providing them with goods and services that they want, and with taking their money in return. The customer does not care that your store is understaffed due to bad management, or that the sweater he wants is not in stock because all the sweaters were moved out for the big hot pants sale, or that you can’t process credit card transactions because your computer system has failed. All the customer cares about is that you are not prepared to run your business, that you don’t have the item he wants, and that you can’t take his money.
  9. Evaluate your business from the point of view of the customer. The customer’s point of view is really the only one that matters, if you’re interested in making money. If you don’t have any way for customers to let you know about their experiences, it’s almost certain that it’s costing you money. Isolated bad experiences are to be expected with even the best-run businesses — but it’s the businesses with no customer-feedback mechanisms that allow systemic problems to linger on and on, costing them customers and money.
  10. Answer the phone. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief, customers are not fooled into thinking that their call is important to you just because your on-hold message says as much. If the call is actually important to you, you’ll answer it. If you can’t afford to hire enough people for your volume of business, you’re probably not charging enough.
  11. Don’t answer the phone. When you are dealing with a customer in person and the phone rings — let it ring. Let a machine tell the person on the phone how important they are. Unless you sell penny candy and run a $5-per-minute 900 number out of the same location, you have no higher priority than to deal with the customer who’s standing in front of you.
  12. Don’t burn bridges. It’s cheaper and easier in the short run to let customers absorb the effects of your mistakes, but it will eventually destroy your business. As the saying goes, “if you don’t have a good time, you have a good story” is true in retail, too. Customers who are pleased with your business generally won’t tell other people about it unless they’re asked. If you make them sorry they ever heard of your company, they’ll tell the story to complete strangers if the opportunity arises.
  13. Don’t cheat your customers. This is related to the one directly above, but different. Unless you are a scam artist, know you’re a scam artist, and intend to be a scam artist, it just doesn’t pay to cheat your customers. You are exchanging something of value to the customer for money. Fooling the customer, through deceptive advertising, coercive contracts, ‘gotcha’ policies, and the like might make money, but it only works once. P.T. Barnum famously invited visitors to his museum to ‘see the egress’, counting on the fact that most people would not be aware that ‘egress’ is a synonym for ‘exit’, and that they’d have to pay the admission fee again if they wanted to see anything else. If you charge someone to ‘see the egress’, make sure you’ve already recouped all your customer-acquisition costs, because there’s little chance you’ll see any more of their money.
  14. The customer isn’t necessarily always right, but he’s always the customer. If you do a Google search for “the customer is not always right”, you’ll find a very large number of results. I’m amazed at these people; if the customers are such a pain in the ass, why aren’t they in some line of business that doesn’t require dealing with customers directly? (See #1 above.) Most of the customer-is-not-always-right pages have all kinds of tips about getting rid of ‘undesirable’ customers, and how to set ‘rules’ for the people who are giving you money, and when to ‘fire’ customers you don’t want. If you do business in a mall and find yourself thinking along these lines even a little bit, you really need to consider whether retail is for you.
  15. Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. Especially in any kind of retail business. Most businesses who have ongoing relationships with their customers will treat some better than others. It’s just smart business, given limited resources, that the customers whose business is very lucrative will get better service and pricing than the customers whose business generates less profit. If you try to apply this to unknown or little-known customers, though, it can blow up in your face. You can’t serve only the 20% of customers who produce 80% of the profits, so stop trying. If you are thinking of classifying a customer as ‘unprofitable’ and not worth serving well, make sure that you know, truly, who that customer is and who it is he influences. The person you’re jerking around on a $20 purchase right now might be the person who decides whether his company is going to make a $20,000 purchase next week: and if you make him feel like a bother now, he’s not going to bother you in the future.
  16. “Business To Business” is bad business. This is related to the rule above. I am Tino, a private individual with a credit card. I am also the CEO of Tinotopia, Inc., a corporate entity with a credit card. Some companies are willing to sell to Tino the corporation and not Tino the individual. This is utterly insane. If you sell, say, million-dollar computers with service contracts and complex financing deals, if your sales are made over expense-account lunches by guys in suits, then fine, you’re a business-to-business seller. If you sell individual products through a website, take money from anyone who offers it. Some of the relationships you establish with $50 sales today will become large accounts tomorrow. See above.
  17. Practice customer parity. This is a broad rule. It used to be said that the customer should be treated as an honored guest. That’d be great, but it’s not likely to happen these days. The very least you should aim for, though, is customer parity, which means treating the customer at least as well as you require him to treat you. It means issuing refunds to customers in the same form in which they paid you. If a customer pays with a credit card, credit the amount back to the card. If he paid with a check, repay him with a check — on the spot. If he paid cash, you must refund cash to him. Obviously, if the customer voluntarily agrees to another form of compensation, be this a check, a gift certificate, or jelly beans, that’s okay, too. But unless you’re willing to let a customer walk out the door with a television based on his promise to have a check sent in a week or two from his central office, it’s inexcusably arrogant and rude to ask him to accept that promise from you.
  18. Do not outsource your customer-support operations, to India or anywhere else. If you have any respect for your customers at all, you’ll handle supporting them in precisely the same way you handle taking their money. If you do business in the physical world, your prime customer-support functions should take place in your physical locations (i.e. stores). If you have a store, and a customer is in it, and you must refer the customer to a phone number to solve their problem, you have failed. A surprising number of companies have arranged their operations so that sales — getting money from the customer — can be carried out anywhere and with ease, while customer support — delivering value to the customer — is a complicated procedure run from a single location with arcane hours. Your customers are not so stupid as to not notice this, and direct their future purchases accordingly. Operating call centers is, I’ll admit, a horribly expensive proposition, and it’s quite understandable that you might want to hire someone who specializes in doing it at as low a cost as possible and getting rid of the headache all together. However, when you outsource your customer contact, you step into the Twilight Zone of business — as in, your business is in the twilight of its life. Outsourcing your customer contact means, obviously, that you don’t talk to your customers and they don’t talk to you. Any customer problem that you did not specifically anticipate and build in to the decision tree that you handed off to the call-center operator will result in an unsatisfied customer. Before you outsource your customer contact, and ask yourself why people should buy their widgets from you instead of Discount Widget Warehouse, or whoever else happens to have the cheapest prices this week. If the answer involves the word “service” or “support” or “relationship” at all, you’re in the customer-service business, and you should probably act like it.
Posted by tino at 19:07 27.06.04
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As a customer service rep, every time I read your diatribes about how customer service is on the decline, I have to take two valium to calm down.

You really have no idea what it takes to do a job like mine. You would not last a single day doing what I do. How do I know this?

Because if your expectations of the representatives are high, your expectations of customers to act like reasonable human beings would be just as high. The things that you think would bother a person about customer service don’t. But more than you could possibly imagine, people are rude, hateful, and more than willing to take our whatever frustrations they have on the next person they come across.

For every one of the points you have made above, I could give you point for point the why’s and wherefor’s of how customers circumvent our best efforts every single time.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at July 31, 2004 06:10 PM

Good golly, woman. Do you see what rule #1 is? Nobody is forcing you to do this.

If working in customer service is so awful for you — and it seems to be, what with the blind contempt you show for customers even in the abstract — then find another job. Please. Your blood pressure will be lower, and your employer’s customers will almost certainly get better service. Everyone will win.

And this is important because nobody is forcing your customers to do business with you, either.

Are your customers morons? Bothersome? Too stupid to figure out basic things for themselves, so they call up screaming at you? Are they rude? There are a lot of stupid and rude people in the world, so I believe it.

And when you say that I wouldn’t last a day in a customer-service role? I believe that, too.

This is why I don’t do that kind of work. I do not for a moment maintain that I could run a retail operation, or that I could man a call-center desk, or that I could do competently any of the other things I advocate in the Customer Service Rules. I almost certainly could not.

And this is why I have not hung out a shingle proposing to do those things in exchange for money.

I do not think it is at all unreasonable to expect people who offer goods and services on a commercial basis to be able to competently deliver on what they promise. The vendors of these goods and services set the terms under which these things are to be sold. After setting those terms, it’s up to the vendor — be it a phone company, a bank, a grocery store, or anything else — to deliver.

Posted by: Tino at July 31, 2004 08:22 PM

You missed the point of my post. The customers, although rude to the point of idiocy, get my undivided attention and respect, regardless of how they behave.

It is people like you who post your so-called “rules” that drive me mad. Your solution is to simply “find another job”.

I happen to like my job. I like what I do and I like helping people. I just wish that some people would quit taking their frustrations out on me and others like me.

That would inlcude people like you who got a tad upset because of cash register incident at a 7-11.

You need to write yourself a note when you go out each day: People who work in customer service are not out to get me.

You also need to realize that all the “horror” stories you hear, probably have another side.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at August 3, 2004 11:45 PM