I swear I read something recently about a recession, but I must be mistaken. Based upon my experiences over the last few weeks, I can only conclude that we're right in the middle of boom times.
I'm not looking at economic indicators, unemployment rates, or trade balances, mind you. My optimism is fueled by the way some of my favorite businesses seem to be treating their customers. Recently, some well-known businesses have become so bullish on our economy that they don't even want my money.
First up is a big-box retailer. It's a place my wife and I shop regularly; a place that also appeared regularly on my mother's shopping agenda when I was a child. Over the years I've grown to respect this organization for both quality and service. Their prices are good, and when I've needed help, it's been there.
In this case, I happened to arrive about ten minutes prior to closing time. It wasn't just me, mind you: a good number of customers filed in alongside me that evening. And as we crowded toward the door, I looked up at the employee stationed there, ready to smile my hello.
"The store is closing in seven minutes," he glowered in return. "Move to the back of the store first, then shop toward the front." I listened with surprise as he repeated his mantra over and over again, to customers ahead of me and behind me, until I was out of earshot.
In my mind, a cartoon: I see myself in a crowd of customers, standing in the parking lot, our fists filled with cash and held high in the air. The greeter faces us, corporate logo on his vest, with his arms crossed, scowling: "If you wanted to give us that money, you should have planned ahead. Now, it's inconvenient for us to take it."
Story number two takes place at the drop-off center for a major nationwide shipper, the one I trust to move quite a lot of materials and equipment around the country for my keynotes and training sessions. They're quick and efficient, and over the years their record with me has been nearly perfect, with any glitches getting dealt with quickly and politely.
On this recent day, I happened to be dropping off a cardboard box, a suitcase of materials, and a shipping tube. As always, my outbound shipments bore pre-printed labels that direct bill my corporate account. All I needed from the clerk was for him to take the materials from me. That's all. Just take them.
He began by notifying me that my box wasn't allowable because I re-used it. Only brand new, never-used boxes are allowed, he chastised. Next, he informed me that I shouldn't be shipping suitcases at all. Soon, he alleged, they planned to stop accepting suitcases entirely -- and I should know that. Finally, he found fault with the way my tube was taped. If I don't know how to use the tube, he groused, I shouldn't try. His objections -- all of which turned out to be factually false, by the way -- each led to a minor skirmish, ending with him begrudgingly agreeing to do me a favor and accept the shipment -- but just this once.
Another mental cartoon: I should have brought a burly assistant with me to hold this clerk down, so that I could more easily stuff my money into his pockets.
Story number three happens aboard one of my favorite airlines. They have good prices, good service, and good performance, and they've been a standard part of my business for years. They don't even lose my bags!
On a recent afternoon I sat on a plane, at the gate, during boarding. It was summer, in Texas, and it was hot outside. And, it was hot inside. The interior was easily eighty degrees and warming. Everyone was sweating, and my wife and a few others had begun to complain that they felt dizzy. Dizzy! It was so hot, in other words, that passengers were experiencing adverse health effects. So I did what seemed reasonable: I asked a flight attendant to request that the captain crank up some air.
"Oh yeah, right," came her surprising reply. "They don't listen to us. But they'll listen to you -- you should write a letter when you get home." Stunned, I pointed out that a letter next week wouldn't help my dizzy wife now. But the flight attendant didn't really answer. She just shook her head and mumbled something about corporate policies associated with not running the air conditioner at the gate.
One more mental cartoon, aided perhaps by a bit of heatstroke: my flight attendant sits in customer service training class. "Remember," the instructor cautions, "by the time you meet our customers, we've already got their money once. Who cares about next time?"
If you run a business, at any level, I don't need to tell you that our climb out of recession is in its early stages -- so we hope! You, like every other business, have been forced to do more with less over the last several years -- staffing, training, and support systems have often been compromised. So as things turn up, even just a little, the stress of those cuts is magnified. Your people are more overwhelmed, your training is more inadequate, and your systems are less able to keep up.
It's painful, I know. But be careful that your employees -- and you -- don't start to push away the business that comes with recovery. If we're going to climb all the way out of this mess, we're not going to do it by turning away customers.
Take my money -- please.