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A FEATURED ARTICLE FROM

MARCH 2003

Kiss Off! Should You Be
the One Who Says Goodbye?

By John Lamade

If you wanted to make someone feel unwelcome, saying "Kiss off!" seems to be the ultimate, polite expression of loathing and desire for immediate separation. Perhaps we have all dreamt of telling someone to "Kiss off!" Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of these unfortunate words.

Admit it. Haven't you ever felt the urge to tell a customer - one you didn't want - to "kiss off?" Wouldn't the relaxation and reduction in stress you'd feel as you observed the customer's shock and prompt departure be worthwhile? Is there redemption in rudeness?

While saying these words has a dramatic effect, can our silent actions produce similar results? Can our body language and behavior tell someone - a customer - to kiss off? Think about it. Could we be chasing off customers?

Should you always be polite and leave the emotional departures to the irate customer? Can the accumulation and sudden discharge of emotion -like a capacitor - do anybody any good? Well, it does feel good when the sparks fly. Rather than get involved in fisticuffs, we just want someone to leave - this is the intent of the kiss off. Don't go away mad; just go away.

This month's article considers this ancient issue and how it all fits into detailing. My question to you is should you be the one who says goodbye? Alternatively, this is an argument that true customer satisfaction and business success depend on satisfied customers and that controlling emotions - on both sides of the transaction - will produce greater happiness for both parties.

This mutual-benefit or win-win approach to customer relationships is my objective. Yes, it might feel good to blow off a customer, but the long-term effects could be less than those initially considered. It is true that some artists can be temperamental, but bad word of mouth can kill a business - dead!

COLD INSPIRATION

Well, this article found its inspiration at an outdoor equipment store here in Medina. This winter has been unusually snowy and cold. My Cub Cadet snow thrower that has weathered two to three uses per year over the last 14 years finally stopped. The auger drive belt started to slip because it had grown hard and smooth over the years. Repairing the snow thrower, I thought, would be fast and easy: remove the four cover bolts, disengage the belt, install a new belt, and replace the cover. Very few repairs are as easy as that. I was about to enter the murky world of poor customer service.

Before I begin, however, I must apologize to northeast Ohio. I realize that my snow thrower has managed to keep the snow away for the past 14 years. While I had the snow thrower in the garage ready to move snow, there could be no significant accumulations of snow in NE Ohio. With the snow thrower in pieces in the garage, I left the state wide open to its snowy fate.

REPLACE VS. REPAIR

To understand all the twists to this story of poor service, you must understand some of the ins and outs of outdoor equipment. One of the largest manufacturers and marketers of outdoor equipment - lawn mowers (both walk-behind and ride-on), snow throwers, tillers, trimmers, etc. - is MTD. MTD offers a wide variety of nationally known brands such as Cub Cadet, White, Yard-Man, Bolens, Troy Built, Ryobi Outdoor, etc. These brands are sold through mass merchandisers (Kmart, Sears, Wal-Mart, and similar places), big-box hardware outlets (Lowe's and Home Depot), programmed distribution hardware (HWI, etc.), and independent distributors. MTD's brand strategy appears to offer each group of channel customers what their customers need. Often there is little overlap. However, in the low-end homeowner products there is little difference (other than paint and price) among the brands. This is true about my single stage snow thrower, which occupies the "good" in a good-better-best strategy. As a result, parts for my snow thrower should be available anywhere.

Tool parts are becoming impossible to find anywhere. Nobody wants to bother with repairs themselves and repairmen are often too expensive. House calls start at $60 for the first half-hour for large appliance repair. As a result, many items are discarded before they mechanically fail. This is why many garbage men say that everyday is Christmas in the trash business. People throw away vacuums with clogged HEPA filters or snow throwers with dirty spark plugs.

Retailers must realize that there is no money in repairs, as parts are impossible to find at Kmart and Wal-Mart. Home Depot claims to have parts at the beginning of the season; they were out of the part in January and would not be able to obtain or reorder the parts until the fall of 2003. Sears does have online capabilities for its parts business. They have almost everything except the Craftsman version of my snow thrower. That left the independent distributors.

THE KISS OFF

My search began again Saturday afternoon. I called a Cub Cadet distributor Saturday morning to make sure that they had parts (they did). When I drove over Saturday afternoon, I discovered that the shop closed at noon. Why didn't the counterperson I spoke to mention that they closed at noon? Did they care if I came? I returned two days later, following a snowstorm that dumped about eight inches of snow. I should have known that I would have problems when I discovered that the shop had made it impossible to park. I had to step out of my van into a snow bank and climb through snow to the door. They certainly didn't make it easy to do business with them. With wet, snowy feet I walked past the White version of my snow thrower and I felt that all the hassle would be worthwhile because I would have my v-belt in a few minutes.

I walked back to the parts department and put down the old belt and told the counterperson what I wanted. I mumbled some pleasantries about the weather and the overlapping nature of MTD product parts. The parts person told me that they didn't sell Cub Cadet. I said that I knew that but they did sell White, which is a MTD company and the snow thrower is identical to the Cub Cadet. The person told me that he could match belts, but I wouldn't be happy. I told him I wanted to get rid of the snow and that I would risk it.

The outcome was simple. They had the belts, but they wouldn't sell me one because I had a Cub Cadet belt. The clerk's behavior was obviously in the "Kiss-Off" mode. He had nothing to do (the snow) and he didn't feel like doing anything. I was so angry that I melted the snow all the way back to the van.

SEEKING ALTERNATIVES

Was it the 24" drifts and piles of snow that caused the frustration or was it the counterperson's refusal to provide service? Was there more to this tale? Yes. Because I wasn't going to find a belt, I decided to buy two new shovels. This was January - snow shovels shouldn't be hard to find. Hah!

One of the truths about retailing is that you sell the next season rather than the one you're in. Thus, because it's January I should be looking for lawnmowers and not snow throwers or their parts - and certainly not items like snow shovels. After visits to Home Depot and Wal-Mart, I finally found two shovels at Kmart.

Well, I won't burden you with that story. Suffice it to say I was being presumptuous trying to buy a winter tool in winter. However, if I needed a new lawn mower - this is January in Ohio - I would not have had a problem.

Apparently, anticipating and meeting customer needs is not very important to many businesses any more. The prevailing attitude seems to be "take what we've got or kiss off!" Like it or leave.

Many people have left. McDonald's must close stores; Kmart continues to sink. Some of the brands and companies we have known for years seem poised for disappearance. Why?

DISCOVERING SERVICE

Here's the point: Satisfying your customer's car care needs starts with understanding the customer's needs. Yes, there are customers that cause trouble, are trouble, or look like trouble, and while we might wish them away they may have an impact on your business.

Remember, word of mouth is the basis of most of your referrals. Usually, the customers with strongly felt needs are the ones that will be vocal about your service. Resist the temptation to reflect the customer's attitude. Here's one more story. It didn't happen to me so I don't know if it's true, but I hope it is.
While Jim was in college he worked summers as a bass guide. He would take small groups out onto a lake and help ensure a successful day of fishing. One of the outfitter's prime customers was known to be a pain, and nobody wanted to take him and his parties out. Jim was new to the outfitter and knew the customer by repute. One day he drew this painful person, but he was ready. About 20 minutes out onto the lake Jim had had enough abuse. He pulled out a worn engine starting rope and bit onto it. He pulled the rope into two pieces and demanded of the customer, "Are you going to shut up and fish?" The would-be fisherman started laughing and they soon became friends. At the end of the summer, after several trips, Jim received a bass boat, motor, rods, and electronics as a tip for his summer efforts.
Jim knew that he had to confront the problem and find a resolution with the customer. While we can't expect bass boats for our efforts, most of us would
appreciate more customers.

John Lamade has extensive experience in the marketing of detailing products and is a contributing editor to Auto Laundry News. Contact John via e-mail at jlamade@msn.com.

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