We all make mistakes. It is what we do to recover from those mistakes that leaves a lasting imprint in our customer’s minds.
“Kick shins.” That’s something our former publisher, the late Tiny Weintraub, used to tell us before every trade show. I never really knew what he meant by that until one my colleagues explained that if you’re not in the ring fighting you’ll never have a chance at winning – and, if you never make a mistake, you don’t find out what you’re doing wrong. Tiny was known affectionately in some circles as the “Bully from Brownsville (Brooklyn)” and he had an interesting way of expressing himself, but his point was well taken. He also ran a very successful business for more than four decades by practicing what he preached.
“Kicking shins” involves getting the attention of the people with whom you deal. In practice, it needn’t be violent; but mistakes can be as valuable as successes.
In life as in business, blunders are inevitable. Managing them before they become crises is an important skill. And, if well managed, a mistake you rectify can increase your customers’ confidence in you. Even when you don’t know that this is taking place, it is the right thing to do.
Recently, I received a complaint from one of our subscribers who was being barraged by telephone calls about his subscription. Telemarketing is part of the semiannual audit process required by the Business of Performing Audits (BPA) to verify the accuracy of our circulation records. In the past, this had been done by mail. I was trying a new method that was supposed to give better results.
When I called our fulfillment house to tell them about the complaint, they asked me how many complaints I had received. Was it 10, 50 or 100? They told me that a certain number of complaints is to be expected with telemarketing.
Wrong answer! In my humble opinion, even one complaint is too many! Telemarketing might make our audit stronger and more impressive to media buyers, but it is not worth the risk of upsetting our readers. Without readers, we would have no advertisers.
The point of this column is not to talk about the virtues of Vending Times, but to discuss the importance of communicating frankly, in the light of some of my own experiences. Sometimes we are faced with difficult decisions, but the old adage “the customer is always right” is one of the most important aspects of running a business. This is true whether you’re a publisher, a product supplier, an equipment manufacturer or an operator.
Actions speak louder than words. It’s nice to have a mission statement plastered on all your company literature, but it needs to be a way of life. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes we deal with irate customers who don’t treat us courteously. Where do we draw the line? I tell my employees to always be professional, patient and kind, but the moment a customer is nasty or disparaging, they have every right to politely hang up the phone.
But what about the complaints we don’t hear about? If you are communicating with your customers regularly, this should not be an issue. Talk to your clients; get out there and interact with them. Ask those who are pleased with your service what it is about your company that keeps them coming back. Ask them if there is anything you could be doing better. This also applies to your “internal customers” – your employees, and even your suppliers.
The holidays are a popular time for employee reviews and sending letters of thanks to our customers. Of course, expressing appreciation should be done all year round. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to show our gratitude. A simple thank you will go a long way.
An apology will go even further. I had another customer who was unhappy with the service he received from one of our sales representatives. Fortunately, I was able to learn about the problem early enough to have the chance to “make good” on it. I had to call several times before I could even get him to take my call, but I didn’t give up. When we finally spoke and I was able to apologize, he was leery of my offer to make it up to him. “Why would you want to give me something for free?” he asked. “Because we made a mistake and we want you as a customer,” I replied. “Your business is important to us and we apparently got off on the wrong foot. I want to start over.” This went on for about 10 minutes and I still couldn’t get past his suspicion. Finally I said, “Wouldn’t you do the same for one of your customers?” Would you give an operator a free case of product if you thought you had made a mistake?” He suddenly saw what I was talking about, and agreed, “Yes, you’re right, I would.”
In the end, the case of product might cost you a couple of bucks, but isn’t it worth spending it to win back an account – hopefully a long-term customer? I’m sure we all understand this in theory, but how many us follow this principle day in and day out? It’s too easy to let our emotions get in the way, or just give up.
Sometimes these situations take on a life of their own: “I won’t do business with company X on principle”; “I won’t give customer Y a discount for this or that, because then they will expect it all the time.” But if you state your conditions right up front and stand your ground, you will not only keep your customers, but you’ll earn their respect. When mistakes are addressed quickly and directly, most times they can be nipped in the bud without lasting harm, and with the benefit of a lesson learned.
As I am writing this column, one of my editor friends comes in to grumble. He tells me that he called one of our advertisers to chat about the industry. “Why are you calling me?” the advertiser asked. “What is this leading to?” My friend was insulted. Why are people so suspicious when you’ve given them unconditional service?
This is a part of the problem that’s not often discussed, but that is very familiar to vending operators. We sometimes have to apologize for someone else’s bad conduct. In recent years, the formerly sharp line between advertising (which you pay for) and editorial (which costs you nothing, and which informs the industry) has become blurred. Publications that continue to do it the old-fashioned way have to accept and deal with a perfectly natural suspicion that they did nothing to provoke. Operators with unscrupulous competitors will understand.
If you stay in touch with your customers (and, broadly considered, just about everyone is a customer) to thank them for courtesies, compare notes and commend them for good things they’ve done, you will have less difficulty admitting when you’ve blundered, or asking them nicely to rectify a mistake they’ve made. They will know you’re out there, and you won’t have to kick shins.