Customer Service: Don't Blow it!

Every once in a while , a chance encounter in one's daily routine stands out as odd - a bit too strange to put one's finger on. When it crosses over into your work, such as running a small retail business, it ends up sticking in one's mind long afterwards.

Take, for example, a recent stop I made into a local convenience store. Perhaps it was a case clashing cultures, but it smacked of good intentions gone completely awry on the part of the staff.

Blazing into the store with a tremendous focus of purpose, grabbing a newspaper and looking for the coffee, I rounded the corner of an isle and met up suddenly with the jovial store manager, who said, "Hi, how are you today?"

I stammered. I was in a rotten mood, had a million thoughts swirling in my head, and very stressed out. The reasons aren't important. I offered only a lukewarm smile and a nod as I breezed past: Not an ideal response by any means, but not the kind of thing I'd be stoned for.

Or so I thought.

"Fine, thank you, and how are you?" the same manager snarled sarcastically, with a good dose of venom as she headed in the other direction.

I was stunned.

The rules of customer service had been turned on edge: If you don't like the customer's response, insult them! Well, whatever goodwill the employee been created with their bubbly greeting vanished in flash. Had I been a trouble maker? Had I been rude or insulting? Or had I simply failed to live up to their personal expectations?

Who hasn't had a stressful day? The most civilized of us generally make a concerted effort not to play out personal issues on unsuspecting strangers, but even the best of us might become uncharacteristically preoccupied. But really, did the punishment fit the crime here?

It reminded me of a different story my father has told on more than one occasion. It was very close to closing time at the onset of a four-day holiday weekend, and he was rushing to get to an electrical supply store in time to get a needed part. He rushed into the store with only moments to spare, and hurriedly asked, "Do you have one of these?" as he held up some gizmo. It was a small mom-and-pop shop, and the owner, who was behind the counter, said calmly, "How are you today?"

"Touché," my dad thought, instantly recognizing the error of his ways, as he smiled and redeemed himself with a proper greeting.

What was the difference between the two situations? Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but one disarmed the customer and gained their confidence. The other started off with good intentions but turned psycho; instead of bonding with the customer, the store horrified them. Despite my lapse in judgment, I don't think I deserved to be publicly insulted. I don't go out of my way to patronize the store these days.

It is a bit hard to compare specialty tobacco shops to the nation's gigantic retail industry and all of the big-thinking analysis that goes into mass-market shopping. Cigar and pipe shops are a unique bread unto themselves, even among other small, niche retailers. But even so, many of the lessons of customer relations still hold true in the smoke shop. Suffocating a potential customer can be just as harmful as failing to acknowledge their existence. Bt for heaven's sake, hold the insults!

With Internet sales adding to the tobacco shop's old nemesis - discount mail order catalogs " we are constantly being reminded that customer service is the key point of differentiation that the corner smoke shop can offer. It is something that should add value and dimension to the in-store shopping experience, not take away from it.

E. Edward "Ted" Hoyt III