I was raised in a time where the philosophy of the sole proprietorship — or any business, really — was “The Customer is Always Right.” My grandfather owned a pharmacy in a small town in Nebraska and when, as a young boy, I would visit him during the summer and “work” for him, I watched as each person walked into his pharmacy for service and grandfather would stop whatever he was doing and give the customer 100% of his time and attention. Sometimes they wouldn’t even ask him a question – they were there just to shoot the breeze. Sometimes he didn’t sell them anything.
Oftentimes he gave them more time than they bought in service. Today I wonder what happened to that Golden Rule of Business where “The Customer is Always Right.”
More and more I experience and learn of small, single-owner, businesses where the boss of the shop — the one person you expect to honor your presence in their store — is uninterested in customer service even to the point of ignoring or harassing the customer! The other day I was buying a newspaper and the owner behind the counter was on the phone.
He chattered away while I waited for him to ring up my 50-cent purchase. When, after a minute of watching him yabber into the phone I asked if he would please ring me up, the guy looked at me, narrowed his eyebrows, took the phone away from his ear and shook it at me and shouted, “This is long distance!” I turned around and left the store as his wife was coming in and she tried to stop me by saying, “Don’t worry. He’s always that way!”
I smiled at her and shook my head wondering to myself how such a person comes to own a store in the first place. A friend of mine in Texas told me a story about a new Laundromat where no one works there at all. The machines are not coin operated. You have to buy a card to do your wash. If the machines that distribute the cards are not working you can’t do your wash. There is no boss to cling to when the machines to awry so the customers are stuck trying to help each other by bargaining drying time for Tide laundry detergent or by sharing a load for a dollar with someone who has a filled wash card.
The person who owns the business has yet to set foot in the establishment. The man who fixes the card machine is a more familiar face than the owner for customers who are trying to be loyal. The final example comes from a friend of mine in Maine. My friend hires a guy every year who owns a “snow shoveling company” — the entire company is the guy’s Ford truck with a plough attached to the front of it during the Winter months.
My friend relies on this guy to shovel his parking lot for the customers who visit my friend’s store. When it snows, my friend is always last on the list to get his lot plowed. The guy who runs the one-man snowplough business is always overwhelmed and slow and many times his truck doesn’t work. If the snowplough guy doesn’t show up before my friend opens his business, my friend has to hire another company at treble the cost to come in and do an emergency plough job.
My friend, who likes the snowplough guy as a person, wonders why the plough guy can’t see the chain effect he has on creating a bad experience for customers on down the line. The snowplough guy is always apologetic but the behavior never changes. Sometimes I feel the big mega-corporations like Wal-Mart and Target do a better job of serving the idea of “The Customer is Always Right” than a sole proprietorship because at least in a big corporation there is a chain of people that can ultimately be held responsible for the lack of service and then provide a remedy.
When you’re dealing with a sole-proprietorship the buck starts and stops with one person and if the business owner doesn’t care about your 50-cents or your laundry card or the three-foot snow drifts blocking your handicapped parking spaces — how can you begin to ever make them care? You can vote against them with your pocketbook but that only leaves you with more cash and the same level of lousy service.