Before we get to the heart of the matter, I want to share this little story as background first.
This story is about something that happened to me just this week, here in my little town in the North Carolina mountains, and it involves two businesses I routinely interact with.
Now, I want to state upfront: I’m giving the name of one business, but not the other. The reason I’m not calling out the second company by name is that I know these guys, and I truly believe that for the most part, they’re ethical, straight-up folks who just didn’t know any better in this particular instance. They don’t deserve web-shaming or name-calling.
But I do think it’s important to compare and contrast how both companies behaved during this incident, so that our resulting conversation will be as helpful as possible.
So! Gather ‘round, kiddies, ‘cause it’s story-time with Auntie Annie …
What Happened: A Tale of Two Steaks
This past Tuesday, I went grocery shopping for myself and my teen daughter. I don’t have a car, so as usual, I relied on a particular cab company to get to the nearest grocery store – Harris Teeter.
Now, HT is a bit pricier than other stores in my area. But it’s so much closer to my house that, on a per-trip basis, I generally make up the difference in the cost of food with the lower cab-ride cost. (Side note: I really need to get a car….)
Do I loooooove HT? No. No, I do not. I mean, it’s nice and all. Relatively clean. Decent selection of organics, though pricier overall than the other contenders, so I have to be super-diligent about shopping the specials and price-comparisons.
But on the know-like-trust scale? I’m somewhere between “know” and “like” with HT. I certainly am aware of them. I don’t have any serious problems with them. If I had a cheaper alternative closer to my house, though, I’d go to the cheaper place.
Until this past Tuesday, that is. Now, everything’s changed.
Here’s what went down.
While shopping, I spied in the meat cooler a pair of Angus ribeyes marked half-off for quick sale, down to $8.05 from $16.10. They looked OK – no greying, no broken cellophane – so I grabbed those suckers and considered myself lucky.
After paying about $92 for about six days’ worth of groceries, including the steaks, I took the loaded bags outside and put them in the backseat of the waiting cab, then hopped in the front seat and the driver – whom I’ll call “Dave” – drove me back to my house. On the way, he took a turn a little too quickly and I heard a bag tip over. I looked back quickly – nothing broken, nothing seemed to have fallen out – so I figured we were good.
When we got to my house, Dave helped me unload the bags to the front porch. I’d been chatting with Dave on the trip – he’d had a rough time of it lately, been homeless with his wife and had to temporarily give their infant son to a friend while they got themselves settled – so I gave him a substantial tip.
Then Dave left, and my daughter helped me unpack the groceries.
After we were done, I thought “Oh, I better get those steaks out of the freezer and cook those tonight,” seeing as how they were marked down and all. I figured their shelf-life was dwindling quickly.
One problem: No steaks.
My daughter and I searched every empty bag, every shelf in the pantry (hey, it’s happened before), the entire fridge – we even looked outside in the driveway on the off-chance the steaks had fallen out.
I checked my receipt. Yep, there they were. Angus ribeye beef, $8.05.
At this point, I drew the obvious conclusion: they fell out of the bag during the drive when we took that turn. They’re probably under the backseat in Dave’s cab.
So I called the cab dispatch and spoke to the dispatcher – we’ll call him “Ben.” Ben has always been friendly, so I just explained the situation and asked him to have Dave check his cab after whatever run he was currently on was over and if he saw the steaks, to drop them off at my house. Surely the huge tip I’d given him would have earned me that.
But Ben called back about 10 minutes later and said Dave had searched the cab – no steaks. I asked if he’d looked under the seat – yes, he had. Then Ben said the strangest thing: “Well, Dave’s vegetarian!”
I hadn’t accused Dave of stealing the steaks, mind you. I’ll admit, it did cross my mind as a possibility, but I didn’t really think that’s what had happened. And I certainly never suggested such a thing.
“OK,” I said, taking a deep breath, “I’m going to call the grocery store. If they find them, maybe Dave could go pick them up for me and drop them off here, and … I guess … I’ll have to pay him for that trip?”
I called HT and spoke to a lovely woman named Jerrikah Pierce. (I told her I’d be doing this and praising her publicly, so I really hope she wasn’t just joking when she laughed and said “Sure!” Ahem.) Jerrikah said her manager was in a meeting, but she’d look – could I hold?
“Sure,” I said, thinking “this isn’t going to end well.”
Jerrikah came back on the line. “Well, I can’t find the steaks, but … where do you live?”
I was puzzled, but I gave her the address.
“OK, here’s what I’m going to do. My manager’s about to come out of the meeting, and when he’s out, I’ll go grab two new steaks and bring them over to you.”
Did you catch that? “I WILL BRING THEM OVER TO YOU.”
I was just as flustered and stunned as you’re probably imagining right now.
But wait! There’s more!
Twenty minutes later, Jerrikah pulled up – I’d walked outside to meet her so she didn’t have to get out of her car. Seemed the least I could do.
She hands me a bag. We chat a few minutes. I thank her profusely, write down the spelling of her name, and we take our leave of each other.
I get back inside the house and pull out the steaks. Not only are they MUCH prettier than the cheapo reduced pair I’d lost, but they’re also accompanied by a $5 gift card to HT.
I’mma just let that one sink in for a moment …
What HT Did Right (& What the Cab Company Didn’t Do At All)
So, let’s sum up here quickly …
Harris Teeter …
- Took me seriously;
- Believed me – never asked for a receipt or proof of purchase of any kind;
- Valued me as a customer;
- Valued me enough to proactively solve the problem for me;
- Valued me enough to send out an assistant manager in the middle of her shift to personally drop off the replacement WITH a bonus goodie;
- Followed through promptly on their promise;
- And never once made me feel foolish or like it was my fault.
The cab company …
- Made a token effort to see if the ball was in their court;
- Once their employee told them it wasn’t, they ended their involvement;
- Didn’t offer any other solutions;
- In fact, made it clear I’d have to pay extra to them to solve my problem;
- And even got a little defensive about the whole thing.
Now, mind you, the cab company wasn’t rude about it. Ben was quite polite and sympathetic. It just wasn’t his problem, and that was the end of it, as far as he was concerned.
Compare that to HT’s response. It may have been their problem – or it may not have been. They could have taken the position that “it must be in the cab, but they’re just not telling you the truth.” They could have insisted I go to them with the receipt in hand.
They could have done a lot of things, but instead, they valued this obviously hyper-price-conscious shopper enough to impress the crap out of her by solving a problem that maybe wasn’t even their problem to begin with. (Remember, they never found the steaks in the checkout line.)
What Do $8 Steaks Have to do With Your Business? And What’s Radical Customer Service Anyway?
What HT did, to me, was nothing short of radical customer service. It’s far and above the minimum standard of “making right what you did wrong.”
And I think it’s a principal we’re all going to have to embrace in the years ahead.
I don’t know about you, but the last several years for me have changed me in ways I could not have predicted ten years ago, before the economic bottom dropped out. I no longer behave the same way I used to as a consumer. Time was, not so long ago, I’d have written off those $8 steaks as a lost cause and maybe gotten a little irked, but it wouldn’t have caused much more annoyance than dropping a raw egg on the floor.
Not anymore. And I don’t think I’m alone.
We’re all going to have to find ways to provide not just good customer service, but radical customer service. I don’t care what you sell – whether it’s your time, your knowledge, or your hand-crafted prayer shawls – you’re not niched so perfectly with a slobbering, deep-pocketed, ready-made market that you don’t have to worry about this issue. Your peeps can always find another solution.
And they will, if they don’t feel valued.
But … oh my gosh, so many “buts” …
The Flip Side of Radical Customer Service
I don’t know of any solopreneur who would disagree that good customer service is something we should all strive for. I think many would also agree that the concept of radical customer service is a great notion, in theory.
But I think a lot of us – and yes, this includes me – would agree with my friend Veronica who runs a copywriting service. When I told her about this story, and we started discussing how radical customer service would look in a service-based solo business, she had this to say:
Note-Blockquoteà “I think I’ve come at this from the other angle too often, especially lately. I want to provide good client service, but a lot of times my clients will ask for more than I think I should reasonably be expected to give.
Say I get an assignment to write a creative brief, and I’m given ten documents. I do my draft, I send it to the client, and then I get an email that says ‘OK, this looks great. Now work in these 52 additional points, based on these 12 new documents I’m sending you.’ But they expect the price to remain the same. How do I not get taken advantage of here?”ß end blockquote
I don’t have any ready-made answers. Just ideas, thoughts, suggestions … and a burning need to have this discussion with others who deal with it daily.
So – let’s have that conversation. Radical customer service: What does it look like in our solo and small biz world? What does it look like when we’re not selling $8 steaks but chunks of our time and our expertise? How do we not get taken advantage of? Where do we draw the line?
Talk amongst yourselves. I’m gonna go cook some steaks, but I’m listening.