A Cautionary Tale About Customer Service

Many years ago, I used to work for Greater Reston Arts Center as their marketing and public relations manager (a fantastic job for a terrific organization).  At the time, the arts center had a gallery in Reston Town Center, and stay-at-home moms were fond of dropping by and bringing their little ones, who would sometimes christen the windows and glass doors with smeary little fingerprints, as children will do.

When I arrived at the gallery in the morning, before it was open to the public, one of the first things I used to do was polish the front glass doors with Windex.  The receptionist used to laugh at me for doing this, and tease me a little.  And I used to say “All the public relations in the world won’t do us any good if people come here and see dirty doors when they walk in!”

And I still believe it’s true.  Five minutes of glass polishing was worth it.  It’s the little things that can sink your business.  Attention to detail matters, and this is especially true when it comes to customer service.

Today, I was struck by this when I was working with a vendor for my own business.  As a marketing agency, Fletcher Prince uses printers.  A lot.  We just gave a big print job to a printer last month.  We had another one today, and we went back to the same printer.  Now David usually handles the print aspects of our business, since he is the designer.  But he’s working on-site for Deloitte this week.  So he asked me to drive to this printer and check a proof.  He calls ahead and tells them I am on my way, and to ask for Ed.  So far, so good.

I drive (35 minutes from my house) to this printer.  I don’t know the neighborhood and there’s no street parking in front of the printer, so I hop out with the hazards on. There is a woman at the front desk.  I tell her, I am here to check a proof, but I have to park my car…can you tell me where to park?  And she tells me and I thank her and tell her I’ll be right back.

I am back in 45 seconds.  She sees me and says “How can I help you?” like she has never seen me before, not really looking at me or smiling or anything.  I can already smell the attitude.  No one else has come in and literally I was there in front of her less than a minute ago. I think, okay, I will play the game her way. I  say “I am here to check a proof.  I am supposed to talk with Ed.”

She says nothing but picks up the phone which rings and proceeds to take a call.  She seems to be giving a little attitude to the other person on the line, who apparently is a customer with some questions, and I also feel like she is giving me attitude.  She does not look at me the whole time. There is no — “Please wait a minute,” or a gesture, or expression, or anything to acknowledge I am there.  Waiting.

Okay.  So maybe she’s having a bad day. But I have worked as a secretary and I have worked as a receptionist.  I know what you do and you don’t do.  And she is breaking the rules of good customer service.  I take a deep breath.

So she finishes her call and says “What is your company’s name?” and I tell her: Fletcher Prince.  She says “What?”  and I say more clearly “Fletcher Prince.”  Then she says “Did you say (she says a nonsense word).”

At this point, I can tell she is, pardon the expression, f’ing with me.  Just because.  I don’t know maybe she doesn’t like curly hair, because I certainly haven’t done anything to her except be courteous.  So I say, loudly, and with my own attitude now, FLETCHER PRINCE.  People in the office jump.  She picks up the proof that is on the counter right in front of her, hands it to me, and I say Thank You.

At this point, I am seething.  Remember, they knew I was on my way. We are about to hand over $1500 to these people to do work for us.  Not a king’s ransom but maybe worth a little courtesy, considering we just gave them $1500 last month.

I don’ t know where Ed is.  I guess I don’t get to see Ed today and there are problems with the proof.  But I’m not going through her.  At this point, I am just mad.  I am done.

Let’s talk about how she might have handled this situation.

She could have said Hello and greeted me when she walked in the door.  She could have said something friendly, such as, did you find a good parking space?  It would not have killed her.

When I told her why I was there, she could have looked for the proof herself.  It was really the only one there.  But, she knew I was coming.  There really was no need  for that.

Ed could have come out.  It’s an open office.  I’m sure he was there, somewhere!

When she took the call she could have said “Sorry, I’ll be right with you in a moment.”  She then could have told the prospective customer that she was helping someone else (who happened to be a paying customer) and either put them on hold or call them back.   Then she could have turned her attention to me, who was there first.  And paying.

When she didn’t understand me (I am half-deaf myself so I understand the dilemma) she could have politely asked me to repeat the name of my company. Or she could have come closer.  She didn’t have to be sarcastic when she didn’t understand.  She didn’t have to make me yell it to her.  Again, probably a fairly good idea who I was. They weren’t busy and they knew I was coming in an hour.  No one likes these kinds of games.

She could have offered me coffee (we are paying enough) and a seat.  She could have called Ed over to greet me (it is my company, after all, that’s paying for this).  She could have smiled.  She could have thanked me.  She could have done any of the normal customer service things people do but she chose not to.

Nothing makes me madder than gratuitous rudeness.  I can handle a little vinegar from anyone but not when there is no call for it all.  I called David and said we are not working with this printer anymore.  They do fine work, but we make it easy for our printers.  When I encounter customer service like this, I worry that when I need them to be accommodating, they won’t be.  It just wasn’t worth it to me to get all that attitude.

So I remembered that another printer has approached me a few times.  I called the rep, and  I gave them the job.  I was delighted that 1) they were polite!  2) they were local  and 3) they were 25% cheaper than the rude printer.  I hope I have found a new vendor.

So, the other printer (and I’m not going to name them) has lost our business for good.  And why?  All because they put someone out front who probably really hates handling the front desk and telephone calls.  Maybe she’s a traffic coordinator, or maybe she OWNS the company, I don’t know.  But she didn’t do the company any favors today.  Big mistake!

And that’s what I mean when I say — all the advertising, public relations, and social media in the WORLD won’t help you if you make a lousy first impression on your customers.  Polish the glass doors, and put on a smile.  We’re in a recession.  Thank your customers for even coming through the door, or risk losing them forever.


About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on January 17, 2012, in Marketing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Was I too harsh? Would you have handled it differently?


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