customer service

Customer Service Policies: Help or Hindrance?

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I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. I met some out-of-town friends for lunch, and I picked up the tab. We were in a small-town, mom-and-pop restaurant; the kind where you pay your bill at the register. I handed the clerk the bill and my debit card, and she said “I’m sorry sir, we don’t take plastic.” After a momentary panic, she told me they would take a check, so I paid by check. My friends were appalled; in the “big city,” all restaurants take plastic.

What policies most impact your patronage to a business?
In the rural mountain area where I live, I run into this situation a few times a year. I’ve encountered the “no plastic” policy in retail stores, motels, restaurants and auto repair shops. When I first moved here, this was a regular occurrence. Now, unless I have a wallet full of cash, I avoid stores that won’t take my debit card. After the encounter at the restaurant, I’ve renewed my old habit of looking for the Visa/MasterCard logo as I enter a business.

I often avoid stores with disagreeable (to me) customer service policies. So do my friends. During the drive home after lunch we had a lively conversation about annoying customer service practices. Every complaint was followed by the phrase “I’ll never shop there again.”

Of course, I understand why businesses make such policies. I owned a retail store in the 1980s and ’90s, and my customer service policy was taken directly from the Ricky Nelson song Garden Party: “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.” Some of the annoying customer policies that I discuss here I was guilty of making myself, in spades. I’m sure it cost me business. If any of these apply to you, it’s costing you business as well. In my last column, I discussed how Google customer reviews can impact your business. Here are a few of the more pervasive “annoying customer service practices” that I ran into while researching online reviews:

1. “You didn’t buy it here so I’m not going to give you advice.” Apparently, the customer had bought a used gaming unit on eBay and wasn’t quite sure about some of the features. He took his questions and the unit to a collectibles shop where he had seen similar units and asked the shop owner for help. The owner wouldn’t give any advice, quoting the policy. The customer gave the store a negative review online, saying he’ll never shop there again.

Was this fair? Of course not. But the review is there for all to see nevertheless. If the store owner had given the matter a little more thought, he would have realized that the sale he missed was gone and was never coming back. The issue in this particular circumstance was what would happen in the future with this customer. Perhaps a better response would have been, “They (the seller) wouldn’t help you with this? We treat our customers better than that. I’ll help you with this and maybe next time you’ll buy from me. Deal?”

2. “Exchange only, no refunds” or other restrictive return policies. In this instance the complaining customer had purchased a wallet from a gift shop that carried a mix of antiques, collectibles and new merchandise. The wallet was new; it sold for $22. When the customer got home, she discovered the identical item on Amazon for $4.95. Yet, the retailer wouldn’t take it back. Exchange only. You guessed it: The disgruntled customer left a bad online review.

Yes, returns are costly for retailers. Fraudulent returns are on the rise. In 2007, for every dollar spent in retail stores there was nine cents worth of returned merchandise. But refusing to give a refund to a single customer cost the retailer all the future sales from that customer and potentially any others who might read the review.

3. “Closed when they should be open.” I’m surprised at how often this came up; about one in five negative reviews concerned store hours that didn’t match advertised hours. Retail store hours are brutal for antiques dealers, who often have to work most of the hours themselves. Store owners generally have few employees. It’s so hard to get good, reliable employees that many dealers have adopted a “take what you can get” attitude. All an employee has to do to keep a job is to be “not bad.” “Good” long-term employees are rare in the antiques trade.

Published store hours are a contract with your customers. If you can’t keep your doors open when you say they will be open, you shouldn’t have a retail store in the first place. This, above all else, is why I no longer have a bricks-and-mortar store: The hours were brutal. I got very little time off, and rarely took a vacation. I didn’t own the store, the store owned me.

4. “Lack of payment options.” This takes us right back to where we started. Last year, credit and debit card transactions in the U.S. topped $1.76 trillion. To put that big number in perspective, that’s more than 100,000 times the number of stars in the sky. More than 20 billion times last year, we used plastic when making a purchase.

In the 21st century, businesses must accept many different payment forms in order to operate effectively. The good news is, taking multiple forms of payment is easier to do today than it has ever been.

When I started in business, checks and cash were more common than credit cards, and debit cards didn’t exist. For more than a decade, some retailers took credit cards but not debit cards. Now, merchant terminals will process all types of transactions, and merchants don’t have to pay to lease multiple card processing machines.

Even when dealers are on the road doing shows and fairs, credit card processing is readily available as long as there is a Wi-Fi connection. PayPal and other processors offer card readers that attach to smartphones and can process a transaction anywhere. (Although I have to admit to being a wee bit leery of someone processing my card over a phone. I’m sure the technology is as safe as any, but I can’t help feeling that my card number is being phoned to some scammer in Nigeria.)

The above four items are on the short list of complaints; the variety of customer complaints over service issues appears never-ending.

The important point is not how many there are, but how many there are about you. Given enough time, everyone will get a negative review. But when that happens, the only remedy is to have plenty of positive reviews to counteract the negative. And the number of positive reviews is greatly enhanced by customer service policies that accommodate the customer.

Have you come across shops with policies that annoy you to the level that you vow to never return? If so, what are those policies? email me with the particulars of your situation; I’d like to hear from you.

Previously published by Antique Trader Magazine

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