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Still abusing customers? Time to close down

Someone I know recently told me a story about a well-established restaurant in Nairobi’s Westlands. He was there with his family, and ordered a fish dish. Upon tasting it, he found that the fish tasted stale and unpleasant. He complained to a waiter, who immediately replaced the fish, no questions asked.

So far, so good, you’re thinking? There’s more to this little tale. As he was leaving the busy restaurant, my friend had a chat with the owner, whom he knows. He mentioned the incident with the fish, and received the following bizarre reply: “Oh, that fish. Yes, you see, we received a bad batch from our supplier. But I told my cooks to serve it anyway. The thing is, most people here don’t mind – they don’t even notice any difference.”

The restaurant proprietor continued: “However, when a discerning customer like you complains, I have instructed my waiters to replace the item immediately without question. So you don’t have to worry at all!”

This is one of the more depressing things I have heard of late. This restaurant is popular and it’s always full. Yet the owner seems to hold his customers in utter contempt. And he is not alone. Far from regarding customers as the very point of a business, too many of our business owners seem to actually despise them.

I wrote a book called “Crown Your Customer” on this very subject last year, and it was fairly scathing on the lack of customer focus in Kenya. After it was done I sat down and thought: Have I overdone it? Are things really this bad? Surely businesspeople can’t be this blind?

All of my experience in the year that has passed suggests that the average businessperson is indeed that bad – worse, in fact. Should my book reach a second edition, I intend to go nuclear. Because the manner in which far too many of our businesses regard and treat their customers is beyond the pale. Far from crowning our customers, we seem more intent on clowning with them.

Recently, I have observed the owner of a uniforms shop shouting at customers for crowding his shop on the day before schools open. I have heard of the bicycle-shop owner who berates customers loudly for buying ‘cheap’ products from elsewhere. I have watched travel agents who simply don’t bother to get back to their customers regarding holiday plans. I have seen shop-owners get shirty with customers who browse for too long without buying.

Why do these people behave so badly – and stupidly? Why are they in business in the first place, if they can’t stand their customers? They have no place being in the market. They are pollutants who should be cleansed out.

Mahatma Gandhi, a fellow renowned for things other than his business prowess, nonetheless had very wise things to say about customers. “A customer is not an interruption of our work; he is the purpose of it. A customer is doing us a favour by letting us serve him; we are not doing him any favour. A customer is not dependent on us; we are dependent on him.”

(Note: whether this was indeed originally said by Gandhi or by someone else is a matter of some debate)

If anyone out there has a reason for being in business other than serving customers, I’d like to know what it is. Throughout history, the great businesses are the ones that create great bonds with customers. The ones that stand the test of time are the ones protected by their customers – even in a downturn. In fact, very happy customers often become ambassadors and evangelists for the companies they love – they are the business’s greatest friend. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have extolled the virtues of companies I regard highly. I do it all the time, with everyone I meet. And it costs the business nothing.

Equally, an angry customer is your worst enemy. At least 20 people (on average) will get to hear about a bad experience (and they’ll pass it on to their friends). 90 per cent of unhappy customers won’t come back – but nearly all will return if the problem is addressed to their satisfaction.

(Note: this piece was written before the advent of social media. Today, a single resonating tweet in Kenya can easily reach 100,000 or more customers of your product in a single day – as we’ve all seen)

If you think that it’s enough just to provide a good product in a good location at a good price – think again. Nearly half of all buyers base their decision to make a repeat purchase on the SERVICE that they received.

The purveyors of bad business have no business being in business. They can only be flushed out if customers stop buying from them. In this regard, we are way too docile. We tolerate too much and accept awfully low standards. If you want a better customer experience, you demand it – and take your custom to those businesses that care about you.

Those who do it well can create a genuine phenomenon. The Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, USA is so good at dealing with its customers that it has become the city’s leading tourist attraction. People come a long way to observe the fun-filled market – and the cash tills keep ringing.

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