‘Tis the season to be a customer. As one who spends 25 hours a day during much of the rest of the year in the role of service provider, I find December to be a study abroad course of sorts. We can learn so much from our own experiences when the roles are reversed that is transferable to our own businesses. We can also better understand our customers by watching the consumers around us.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have noticed a different vibe on the shopping front this year. People are generally nicer. I had a lot of time to reflect on this as I circled the retail center parking lot in a holding pattern for six hours yesterday while nervously eying the fuel gauge. Times are tough, and my mall this year was the discount mall. We don’t get the valet parking option they offer at those "fancy" malls. Instead, we are left to our own devices. There were moments when I was hoping a new business would spring up, one offering in-flight refueling and someone to toss energy drinks and salty snacks through the passenger side window at regular intervals as I show signs of losing consciousness. The guy who figures that one out is going to be rich.
During more prosperous times, securing a parking place involved a game of "Destruction Derby." It was every man for himself. At the slightest sign that a free space might be imminent (brake lights, an open trunk, an incoming asteroid), every make and model of minivan within the immediate state Assembly district would hit the accelerator in a battle of brawn and wits. They would approach in all gears, including reverse, waving their "Baby On Board" placards and their insurance cards. The victor would avoid eye contact, in what is commonly known as survivor’s guilt, while the rest would wave goodbye (usually with one finger) as they moved on in search of a new target.
Yesterday, I did finally find that parking place, but the amazing thing was that it was given to me. In what any reasonable man would consider a tie, my worthy opponent smiled broadly and waved me in — with all fingers. What gives? Once inside mecca, it happened again — and again. People were behaving oddly. One woman, who I believe was buying bathrobes for Delaware, insisted I go ahead of her in line with my one item. Others used strange words like "sorry" (when it was really only a flesh wound) and "excuse me" (stooping low so that I could hear her from my tangled position beneath her shopping cart). This year, the holidays really are bringing people together.
The store clerks were nicer, too. They apologized for long lines, they thanked me for my business, and one even asked if I needed a gift receipt — for the roll of wrapping paper I was buying. "No thank you," I said. "I am pretty sure my husband will like it." In fact, the customer service I have received this year — with one notable exception — was far superior to anything I can recall in past years. That exception is now dangerously close to losing my future business. And, ironically, the crummy service came from my own industry.
I think people are generally nicer this year because there is a sense of camaraderie and, psychologically, a different sense of purpose. Where Christmas pasts have seen over-indulgence and over-consumption, this year the prevailing attitude is much different. Everyone is touched by our economy, directly or indirectly. Spending is more responsible, and there is no longer that same urgency. If I think about buying that scarf over the weekend, it will still be there on Monday. And I might find a better deal if I wait. In the meantime, the purchase process is a lot less stressful, even though the parking lot is full. It is the same whether I am buying a gift for grandma or a home. I used to buy what I wanted. Now I only buy what I need, and it is much easier to take this approach when everyone else isn’t out buying what I want but don’t need. The pressure is off.
I think retailers are nicer this year because their survival depends on it. It always has, really, but supply far outweighs demand today, and those who are able to make a distinction will earn the business. As a consumer, product and cost are hugely important, but all things being equal, my money will be in the corner of the one who treats me with respect, who listens to me, and who proactively responds to my needs. The ones who survive will not be the arrogant, "We’re number one!" companies, but the companies who leave me with the impression that I’m number one.
So, back to my exception. I was having an issue with productivity software. In the spirit of the season, I won’t "out them" here, but suffice it to say that the one thing this software was supposed to do for me, that it had always done for me, suddenly it was not. The customer support representative acted like my call was an enormous intrusion and seriously cutting into his free time, and gave me the impression during our 20-minute conversation that solving my problem was much less important to him than getting me off the phone. We never did resolve my issue, but when I asked if my new Vista operating system might be a factor, he declared with authority, "I don’t know if it’s compatible with Vista or not. If it isn’t working, I guess it’s not."
That’s just not good enough today. There are a lot of people competing for my limited business. Suddenly I was reminded of how my customers see my world. I have choices — a lot of them — and so do they. Greater access means more options. In a world of diminished demand, even mediocrity is a recipe for failure. And real estate agents could take a lesson from that parking lot. We all know that there are too many of us for the spaces available, but there is nothing to be gained from being combative. A little nice goes a long way. Which reminds me — once that space was offered to me, I took a pass. I let the nice five-fingered man have it. As a result, I ended up moments later with a spot much closer to where I was going. It’s funny how things work out with the right mindset.
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