When I worked at bookstores, angry customers would want to talk to me. Like all customers, sometimes they had legitimate things to be vexed about – being out of a book that we damn well should have had, being treated rudely by one of our employees – and sometimes they were just full of shit.
But whatever their reasons, everyone knew to keep me the hell away from a mad customer.
It was a difficult task to do in the small bookshops I started in – when there are four employees, you’re pretty much Johnny-on-the-spot whenever someone enters – but as I climbed up the chain and became an Assistant Manager at a fifty-person bookstore, the employees all rallied the wagons ‘round to put a barrier between Ferrett and The Angry Customer.
“But I want to talk to a manager!”
“I’m a manager,” they’d lie smoothly, stepping in front of the customer to obscure their line of sight while I puttered away, oblivious, in the background. “What can I do for you?”
My problem was – and still, sadly, is – that I have a hard time not matching anger with anger. The proper response is to look very concerned, no matter how ludicrous their complaint, and to nod as if this is indeed a matter of grave proportions, and to say with dignity that you’ll investigate the matter. There were managers who could tell someone to their face that they could stuff the idea of a refund, but somehow managed to make the customers feel good about being refused. (My current boss, Pete, is a master at this.)
And then there was me, who could give a complaining customer a pony and a backrub and still have them griping about that surly guy down at the store. I’m good if the complaint is legitimate and the customer is decent about it – and a surprising number are – but if they’re grouchy or their need is frankly silly, it’s Katy bar the door.
But today, I got a reminder of why my approach is so grievously stupid.
There is a café around the corner from me, which I got really poor service from on several occasions and blogged about it. Admittedly, it wasn’t the nicest entry I’ve written, but it was as accurate as it could be from my perspective (and I had friends I brought along in an attempt to bolster their business who had similar experiences).
The café owners stumbled upon my entries, and left a couple of anonymous comments in my journal telling me that I had “to make up your mind whether u like this place or not” and “those guys have been nothin but nice to you and you think its your right to get treated that way where we think they can just hire a bouncer fer people like you who have ill intentions or unless otherwise one was born that way.” Furthermore, they complained to a person about my blog comments so much that he actually wrote a defense touting the café’s excellent service and atmosphere (which is now, strangely enough, a protected entry).
I don’t blame them for being mad, or even for commenting. It’s what I might do on a bad day.
But it’s hurt them.
Is their service as good as my friend says? I don’t know. Ever since they complained, I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable about going back, especially since I don’t know which one of them left the comments. I sort of worry that if I go there alone, one of them will give me The Look and go, “You’re that asshole who wrote those entries, aren’t you?” And then I’d find myself in that sort of very delicate and uncomfortable discussion where I have to apologize for making someone feel bad, even as I do not take back what I said.
So even though it’s right around the corner, I’ve stayed away.
Sadly, their understandable gut reaction has cost them a fair amount of business, since there have been some days where I’ve said, “Wow, I want a mocha cola, but I don’t want to get into a hassle.” It’s like being on the outs with someone you don’t know well enough to have an honest conversation with. I doubt that's what they meant to do, of course... But that exactly the sort of tense, uncomfortable atmosphere that I create when I’m surly to someone’s complaints.
Now compare this to Paulius at the Velvet Tango Room. One of the local Cleveland blogs, brewfreshdaily, discussed the VTR’s new policy of “pure ingredients,” and one of the commenters had some fairly nasty things to say about the VTR’s prices and its snobbery.
But Paulius did something I hardly ever think to do: he responded with genuine kindness and concern, explaining his position (and the admittedly-exorbitant prices of his drinks), and apologizing for giving the commenter a bad impression. He invited the guy back as a personal guest, offering to show him the place in a different light.
I can’t imagine it was easy for Paulius to hear people comparing his bar to the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” but still he responded with concern to a guy who was saying that “A finely made drink is still finely made whether you pay $8 for it or $16. The extra 8 doesn’t make it any finer, unless you’re a pretentious upper class twit who’ll buy anything that’s marketed to you,” all the while forgetting that even $8 is a ludicrous amount to pay for a drink that you can make yourself for $20 a bottle. When you drink, you only pay for atmosphere and convenience, so it’s just a matter of how much of either you get.
The lesson for me is that kindness does pay in business. Now I just gotta remember to use that.