Outstanding Service: Making a Customer for Life

Now that we have a daughter working at Target (“Cool Managers” blog), I’ve learned a bunch about the challenges—headaches!?—of managing a retail store. And here’s what I know:

I would never want to do it.

Keeping the floors clean during a Colorado rainstorm, offering product that matches the market’s fickle desires, restocking inventory day in and day out, putting stuff back where it belongs after “guests” decide not to buy it (like an orphaned hammer hanging from its claw on a brassiere rack!), hiring people who don’t return after their first day, and being forced to scrutinize all customers because some of them will steal from you.

So many moving parts, so intensely people driven. I’ll be honest—it looks very complicated to me. More than ever, I admire those who can succeed in the retail world.

And those who do, I am convinced, live by this principle:

Never Forget Who Pays the Bills

Nothing complicated about that. It’s simply what we teach in Chapter 24 of the Outstanding! book.

And because stories are how we like to teach at QBQ, Inc., let’s look at a picture of what “never forgetting to pay the bills” looks like. This example was emailed to us by Robert, a longtime fan of the QBQ! book:

John, I just received outstanding service at a “big box” retail store.

I had bought an Office Max brand ink cartridge for my printer, but my printer died before I could use it. When I bought a new printer, the ink wasn’t compatible. Since the ink package had not been opened yet, I figured I’d try exchanging it for one that would work in my new printer, even though the ink receipt was long gone.

So I headed out to the store, but you should know that where I live, Office Max and Office Depot are only one block apart.

I drove toward Office Max (the store I needed) but pulled into the Office Depot parking lot. Totally unaware of my mistake, I walked into Office Depot with an Office Max ink cartridge. At the customer service desk, I told two gents that I’d bought a new printer and asked if I could exchange my ink. It turns out the fellas were the store manager and the assistant manager. The latter said, “No problem, except that ink is from Office Max and you’re in Office Depot.”

I looked down at the cartridge and realized I’d probably be the butt of a “stupid customer” joke or two in the break room later that day!

So I replied, “Oh, man, I pulled into the wrong parking lot! I’m so sorry!” But the store manager, Paul, responded with a smile, “Go grab the ink you need, sir, and we’ll exchange it anyway—as long as you never pull into that other parking lot again!”

I am sure both chains spend millions on advertising each year, but for only $17.99, Office Depot gained a “customer for life.”

I’m grateful to Paul for not making me feel stupid. I’m pretty sure he asked a “QBQ” and not an Incorrect Question (IQ). His IQ might have been, “Why are customers so dumb?” But it seems he asked the QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, “What can I do right now to turn this Office Max customer into an Office Depot customer forever?”

Robert, thanks for sharing your story!

So, is running a retail business complicated? You bet. Are the principles required to succeed complicated? Nope. All it takes is this:

Never forget who pays the bills.

For comment below:

Did Paul do the right thing? What could he have done instead? Do you believe “customer service” is getting better or worse? We’d love to hear from you!

*All winners must live in the United States or Canada.

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15 Responses

  1. Good story. That won’t be a problem for this specific customer for long, as the to office stores are merging soon. They expect to choose a CEO for the combined stores this month (may have happened already).

    Here’s another customer service story. This happened to me at two places in the span of a couple weeks, though I can’t recall it ever happening before. The first time was at, of all places, Office Max (or was it Office Depot? Ha!), the second time at Home Depot. I was looking for something and asked someone at the service desk to point me in the correct direction. Generally, an associate would walk me to the item I needed. In both these cases they couldn’t leave their post, so they pointed me to the correct aisle / area of the store. As I approached the area of the store, another associate approached me and asked, “Are you the one looking for X?” One of them actually politely asked the customer he was helping to wait just a moment so he could intercept me. In both cases, the associate walked me directly to what I was looking for. I was flabergasted! It was like they read my mind as I walked up to them. Awesome.

  2. I love all of your customer service stories, working in Health Care for almost 30 years I have seen a decline in customer service because of all of the stresses we encounter everyday but we need to remember that the customer is going thru more then we are when in the hospital. Keep the great stories coming!

  3. Great story!! I think a key point in outstanding customer service is illustrated by Robert when he states “I’m grateful to Paul for not making me feel stupid.” In mediation we call that “saving face” and it is a key component to building rapport and trust, and in making a lifelong customer! Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Our company is an industrial high-tech cleaning service company working for large utilities, and industrial plants. Tragically, about two years ago, one of our finest technicians was killed when a high pressure hose he was using failed while doing industrial cleaning at a customer site in the Midwest. In our line of work, our safety record is our license to operate, and a fatality is often the cause of losing valuable clients, and perhaps the entire enterprise. The company did a credible job of taking care of the family and the coworkers in that branch office, but the business impact was beginning to be understood by the company and our industry. The company response was twofold (QBQ): 1) How do we keep this from happening again to our company; and 2) How can we keep this from happening again to anyone anywhere in our industry?
    The company undertook a monumental effort to dispose of all hoses currently in service all across the country. The company worked with the hose manufacturers to standardize hose and fitting pressure ratings and color schemes to match. Identifying markings were used to track each hose in inventory and a planned hose retirement date system was introduced. Pressure testing by a third party was introduced. Protective sheaths for hoses were standardized and incorporated as a standard operating procedure, and other safety measures were taken with other pieces of related equipment. A standard for the industry was established where there was none. The improvements greatly reduce the chance of a similar incident, and we openly shared the technology, the processes and procedures with our competitors to ensure all were acting in the best interest of our employees and our customers as an industry.
    All of that is good, but the most impressive part of the response to the horrific accident was what the company did (QBQ) with the story. Instead of hiding from the story, the company embraced it. Presentations were planned at every customer site, telling the tragic story of what happened and how the company reacted. The story was told with deep personal feelings about the family that was impacted, and more than a few of the presenters got choked up during these presentations. The new standards for the industry were discussed and detailed for our customers. We were now providing the safest industrial cleaning operation in the country — even better than the equipment manufacturers could imagine. While it wasn’t the primary reason for the business tactic, the presentations resulted in many invitations to “tell our story” to safety counsels, risk management organizations, trade shows and some large customer gatherings. Suddenly, the company was now in demand, even with the fatality. And what better way to honor our fallen comrade than to greatly reduce the likelihood of that type incident ever happening again. This customer service was one of humility, duty to act, and necessary for our economic survival, but even if we had not gotten the business back, it was the right thing to do. Taking the QBQ approach of “What should we do as a company?” and so many saying “What can I do as an individual?” is what brought about the sweeping change. We are serving each customer today with more confidence and pride than ever before.
    Next up: What do we need to fix now that might prevent a similar problem with our other business lines?

  5. As I ready Robert’s comments, I thought “hooray for the manager & assistant manager”. Not only did they provide outstanding service, but in doing so they were setting an excellent example for their employees — making it more likely the outstanding service he received this time will continue on future visits.

  6. Robert was purposeful to find out whether the QBQ is going to play out as I believe that providence was working as he “did go” into the correct store. Paul provided value to Robert in this exchange and this is something that is going to be shared by Robert with others.
    Additionally, I am the Head Football Coach/Middle School Dean of Students and in teaching my students that ownership of your personal accountability is the doorway to becoming better everyday.

  7. I am in the school biz, but not just any school biz! I am in the at-risk school biz! I love what I do! I work with discipline center kiddos. The customers I serve are the ones who have REALLY burned some bridges along the way. We LOVE giving them the QBQ advice in our social skills classes so that they can find some ways to be more successful along the way.
    In a round about way we are teaching kids that sitting closer to the front, noticing the teacher a bit, and striving for that C is better than the strategies they have been trying for a while! Our kids ultimately pay the bills for their own behaviors. That’s what they are learning right now. Your stories give us ideas to share for their futures. Thank you!

  8. I love it. No job is meaningless and everyone can make a difference where they are at by simply serving the people in front of them.

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