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A tale of two businesses

Someone I’m close to recounted two very different customer experiences to me recently.

The first concerns a well-known shop in a well-known mall in Nairobi. This shop is operated by its owners, and customer care does not appear to run in the bloodline. I myself have only been there once, and once was enough. Sub-standard, over-priced, poorly displayed products; evasive responses; no attempt to listen to customers’ needs; arrogant answers.

Since my own visit many years back, however, I have had similar experiences relayed to me many, many times about this shop. They seem to make a business of bad customer care. It shows, too: the shop looks exactly the same as it did a decade back; worn and aged with nothing fresh about it.

If you’re a Nairobian you’ll know there’s nothing special in what I’ve described above: the city is littered with shops like that, where there is little attempt to invest in proper customer experiences. Dusty, ill-organized outlets with shoddy products and surly attendants.

Let’s move on to the second business I was told about, which is much more inspiring. This is a company that offers custom-made furniture, located off the beaten path. In this particular instance, a desk was ordered, and duly made. The customer came to see the final product before delivery could be completed. He looked at his new desk and was very happy with the result.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The owner-manager had actually called his customer in advance to point out that there was a small defect: a slight warp on the surface of the desk. It was barely discernible, but he felt he had to point it out to his customer. When the customer arrived to view, he could barely make out anything wrong. Nonetheless, the business owner offered to give him that desk, with its minor flaw, at fifty per cent discount; or to make him a new desk altogether.

Wow. Join me in clapping.

The owner of the second business is that very rare creature: a businessperson who loves his work, who wants to do it to exacting standards, and who wants his customers to be delighted with what they get. If there is a problem with the product, even if the customer can’t see it, this businessman does not want to supply it, or at least not at full price. He is willing to lose some money in an individual transaction in order to protect his standards and reputation for the long term.

What was most interesting was the willingness to lose money even where the customer can’t even see the problem. Sadly, most businesses we know would fight tooth and nail not to give a refund even where a problem is glaringly obvious.

The owners of the first business are commonplace pedlars, people who open shops just to make some money, not because they believe in the products or because they want to set high standards in life. For them, every customer is just a possible transaction, nothing more. The more you can charge, and the less you have to invest in selling, the better for you. Customers are not core supporters of the business to be honoured; they are mugs to be tolerated and, where possible, tricked.

I have written here many times before, and will no doubt write again: your business should be a big deal. It should be way more than just your means of making some money; it should be the manifestation of your personal values and standards. People of substance do not run slipshod businesses that cut every corner and shirk every investment; they take personal pride in them.

Business one recounted above, helped by its prime location, trades with a series of one-off customers. I doubt very much that it gets much by way of repeat business. It squanders its locational advantage. Business two, I’m sure, builds long-term bonds with customers based on quality and trust; and is able to stay in lower-cost premises because those very customers become its best advertisement: they deliver powerful word-of-mouth recommendations. It overcomes its locational disadvantage.

If I had to bet on which of the two will thrive in the long term, I know which one I would back, hands down.

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