4 Ways to Treat Your Customers Like People

By Tom Harnish on 7 October 2011 (Updated 13 October 2011) 0 comments
Photo: Tom Harnish

When someone called our vintage airplane ride company’s 800 number, and it was busy, the perky recorded voice (my wife’s) said, “All our lines are busy, but your call is very important to us. Blah, blah, blah.”

The blah, blah, isn’t writer’s shorthand for the usual mindless message, she really did say, “blah, blah, blah.”

A few stunned heartbeats later, long enough for the audacious message to sink in, it continued, “Why is it companies say your call is important but then don’t answer the darned phone? Well, we tried to find a better solution, but we’re a small company and sometimes we just can’t do everything at once. Right now we’re busier than a one-armed wing-walker with a wedgie, but we’ll be with you just as soon as we get our feet on the ground.”

When we started the company we knew we were in the entertainment business not the flying business, and we knew without customers all we had was an expensive hobby. So we tried to make every part of the customer experience fun, even the time they spent on hold.

While they waited we played ragtime piano music, and if the hold was longer than 15 seconds we offered a choice of recorded information about our rides and a promise to answer shortly, really. We also suggested, “If you’re feeling frustrated, press 6 a few times” The appropriate sound effects—“Pow,” or “Ooomph,” or “Wack”—made them smile.

Treating customers like people, treating them the way we want to be treated, helped us build that aviation business, over 16 years, into the oldest and largest in the United States. Our kind of humor or service may not be right for you, but here are four ways you can show your customers you really care.

1. Say Please

In kindergarten we were taught to say “please.” Why? Because it’s an important social skill that suggests respect between the parties. A contraction of the old phrase “if it pleases you,” the word focuses the transaction on the other person, where it belongs.

2. Say Thank You

Sixty years ago, my folks ran a dry cleaning business in Montrose, a small northern Pennsylvania town. Their customers were all acquaintances. Most, were, in fact, neighbors, and many were friends. They interacted with customers as if they might have dinner with them on Saturday or see them in church on Sunday because often they did.

Today, many customers are virtual and most are strangers (there are, after all, twice as many of us in the U.S. as there were in 1950). Saying thank you isn’t as personal, but it’s just as meaningful. The words are important, but more tangible ways of saying thank you without spending too much, such as a simple thank-you card or flowers for a house buyer can make a valuable impression.

3. Make It Easy for Them

Treating customers with respect, caring about them, is tough after day-in, day-out interaction with people who don’t always treat you with respect. And that makes it difficult to be genuinely caring. So if I suggest you act as if you love your customers, you’ll probably balk. But if you really care for someone, don’t you do little things to make life easy for them? I take my wife morning coffee when she’s in the shower. She brings me a glass of wine at the end of the day.

Do you make it easy for your customers to return something? If you offer coupon discounts or rebates are they easy to redeem? Think about the person you care about most—wouldn’t you want it to be easy for them? Wouldn’t you want it to be easy for you? Why should we want anything less for the customers who put groceries on your table?

Nordstrom department store is almost a synonym for customer service. There’s a story that they even refunded, without a receipt, the price a customer claimed to have paid for a set of snow tires—and they don’t sell tires. Home Depot has a similar story. Apocryphal, or not, the stories illustrate how making it easy on customers can contribute to the best advertising there is, a legendary reputation.

4. Understand What They Want, Even If They Don’t

Years ago I visited the EPCOT center at DisneyWorld. In an era when computer terminals provided only green text on a black screen, one company was touting an amazing new technology: a full color display with a touchscreen. Interesting enough, but what really grabbed my attention was in the next exhibit. They also had color displays—with fingerprints all over the screens. In a matter of minutes people had adapted to, and adopted, the touchscreen interface and expected that the next displays would have the same capability. I have the same problem today when I move from iPad to iMac.

But you don’t have to wait for a new technology to point you toward what your customers’ want. They may not even know themselves. For example, according to the “peak-end rule” we judge experiences based on an impression of how pleasant or unpleasant they were at their peak and how they ended. Oddly, an uncomfortable experience that ends abruptly will be remembered as worse than one that was even more uncomfortable for a longer time, but ends with only mild discomfort.

Translated into a business setting, if you’re a car salesman, make the peak experience when they pick the car up, so the peak and the end are at the same. Any personal touch you can add will increase the chance they’ll come back. Or if you’re buying someone a present, stick to one great gift. If you buy them something extravagant and a bauble, research shows it will actually make them less happy.

Thank you for reading so far. As a token of my appreciation, please enjoy this final, sweet, example of what I’m talking about. A candy store was thriving, another nearby was going out of business. The difference? The cheerful counter clerks at the first store always added a dash more candy corn or an extra praline. The dower clerks at the second store weighed each order carefully and even removed a bit if the scoop was overweight. You can, I’m sure, guess which store’s clerk always offered a hearty thank you and waved good-bye.

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