Cattle Attitude is Bad Business

Posted: January 11, 1999 by Bill Cunningham in Marketing, People, Startup

Classic Cincinnati Post column from 1999

Happy New Year!

January brings another holiday retail season to a close and fond memories of shopping are past. This season always pushes the limits of an enterprise’s customer service capability. Whether you are in retail, wholesale or business to business, you all have one thing in common – customers love to be treated like customers – not cattle.

Over the holidays, I experienced three instances of cattle-oriented customer service attitudes (all from large corporations) and began to think about the opportunities small businesses have to provide a better experience.

Remember, the large corporations will have to ‘trickle down’ a new policy or training program to fix their problems. Small businesses, being nimble and quick, can change quickly.

At the first cattle roundup, a hotel reservation had been made for one room with a king-size bed and one with two double beds. Of course, the hotel only had rooms with king-size beds available. This oversight happens all the time.

My customer service person handled it this way: First, they wanted to make sure I knew it wasn’t their fault and that the computer couldn’t be wrong. My response was ‘But I still need a room with two double beds.’

Once I had acknowledged their infallibility, our cattle manager seemed to be magically empowered to solve the problem. They called a few hotels, and offered us a free breakfast, but we got off to a rocky start. (Interestingly, five minutes later, another clerk found the correct rooms in that hotel.)

As a small business, remember to focus on solving the customer’s problem. Fix it first, figure out why after.

The second chance meeting with cow handlers happened upon returning a rental car. This rental car company cost a little more, but there is no paperwork – you just get in the car, show your license and drive.

Upon returning, the check-in procedure is just as fast. When you arrive, a checker scans the bar code on your windshield, checks your mileage and prints a receipt on the spot.

Except it didn’t happen THAT way THIS time. When I arrived, no one was there. At the attendant’s booth, I was told the computer was broken and I had to check in inside the terminal.

At the terminal, the car rental area had been moved to another part of the airport. There were no clues pointing to where the new counters might be found.

A car rental company employee walked by, found me looking a little lost and led me to the right counter. Along the way she explained that the computers were working, but they just didn’t know how to use them. They were shorthanded, so that was the best way to solve the problem.

Well, I think I would have rather not known the reasons why – but the purpose of paying more for this rental was all of the convenience this company offered.

Deliver on your promises – always, every time. When you overpromise and underdeliver, you help your competition get new customers.

The third cattle prodding happened at lane 27 of a large megastore in North Carolina. The devil here was the incorrigible UPC scanner. After picking up a pizza that was marked on sale, the evil scanner rung up a different price.

When I asked our ‘cow hand’ about the difference in price, a clarion call was made to the frozen food manager to determine the authenticity of my request.

As the crowd behind me began to build, a return call was received: ‘The manager said you are wrong, but we’ll give you the price anyway.’

That was nice of them – but somehow I didn’t feel great knowing that I had ‘pulled one over on them.’ Just to be sure, I checked the aisle on the way out and found that I had paid the price marked on the shelf – and I also found that there were no products with the price that scanned.

Just like the hotel clerk, the customer was required to admit guilt before getting the problem fixed.

In this case and all cases, honesty is the only policy. Although I paid the correct price, the impression they created didn’t create any excitement for a return visit.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, and decide how you would have handled these situations.

A great source of ideas on how to make customers love your service is Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke’s book ‘Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service.’

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