KB BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT 52 images SEPTEMBER 2019 Customer relations U niversal Stores sold budget clothing in one of Cape Town’s northern suburbs. It doesn’t exist anymore but lives on in my memory as the place where I was introduced to the customer for the first time — during a holiday job in my last year of high school. The customer care training on the first day at Universal was brief and to the point. I don’t recall the training session having a title but it should have been: ‘Screw them before they screw you.’ In those days, South Africans did their weekend shopping on Saturday mornings because the stores closed at noon and didn’t reopen until Monday. After the Saturday morning pandemonium, we’d find stinking old shoes in some of the boxes — effectively a one-finger salute to our adversarial customer care policy. Open for business About 24 years later, when I opened my own business, my customer relations philosophy was a 180-degree departure from the Universal experience. The last thing I wanted was an adversarial relationship with my customers. I visualised my typical customer as someone well-mannered, honest, patient, polite, and cooperative: someone who’d come through the door smiling broadly and happily pay for my products and services. Like every new business owner, I needed customers – turning people away never crossed my mind. Eventually I became aware that my customer base was not, and would never be, a legion of angels. It was instead a representative sample of the population at large, and we all know what a mixed bag that is! Well-mannered, honest, patient, polite, and cooperative describes most customers, but will never describe an entire customer base. And to make matters more challenging, small business owners’ interactions with certain customers are tainted by a long-established myth-turned-mantra that makes the Michael Best considers whether the customer really is always right ill-mannered, impatient, impolite, uncooperative, and unreasonable believe that they are always right. A myth dressed as a mantra It’s one of the business world’s most common mantras: ‘The customer is always right.’ It’s also nonsense. The customer is not always right – far from it. This slogan was apparently popularised over one hundred years ago by renowned retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. They couldn’t have anticipated that their slogan – intended to positively influence the attitude of retail employees – could have contributed to some customers presuming that they have the right to speak and behave as badly as they please. They don’t. Unless you have a compelling reason to deal with bad customers, you’re better off without them. The definition of a great customer will vary from business to business. In my business it was a person of pleasant disposition who appreciated our commitment to quality at a fair price, who appreciated our reliable technical support, who was interested in a long-term relationship, and who paid their bills on time. Of course, this is not a one-way street. You have to encourage great customers and make it worth their while to keep bringing you their business. This will usually involve high-quality products and services, a welcoming, helpful attitude, and a genuine interest in solving whatever need they’ve brought you. Making your great customers feel that they’re part of something special encourages loyalty. And remember that people prefer to do business with people they like. But there’s a fine line between genuine likeability and faking it — customers can see through the latter and it turns them off. Faking it How many times have you heard the mechanical ‘Have a nice day!’ intoned by a customer service person who isn’t even looking at you? That type of scripted customer engagement doesn’t work for me because it invariably becomes a meaningless dialogue in which the customer is forced to participate for fear of appearing rude. I find this annoying, and I’ll bet many other customers would agree. How can any business person think that a dose of insincerity will do anything but leave a bitter aftertaste? It’s far better to ensure that your business offers genuine, heartfelt