Business, Finance

Phone the home

Call or text or at least e-mail if you’re running late — and if you want to retain your customer. photo: Karlis Dambrans

One day, about 15 years ago, my father told me about his desire to write a book about how to conduct a small business. My father was a piano tuner, traveling every day to his loyal customers in mostly small towns in southern Wisconsin, and he was so good he had more customers than he could handle.

But when he described what he wanted to include in the book, I was surprised because it sounded so small-ball. It was about things like how you interact with your customers, what you say, what you wear on your feet, how you behave around their dog. I hope I didn’t discourage him, but I thought at the time that this would never be worth his effort. As it turned out, he never did get to the book. He died a couple years ago, at a ripe old age and leaving behind many loving friends and family — not to mention long-time customers.

Only then did I begin to realize how important his book would have been. I have been a business journalist for more than two decades, mostly in the commercial real estate field and the high-technology realm. What I have learned in that time is that more than a few businesses are run by people who have little idea what they’re doing, and they often appear incapable of correcting even the most obvious flaws. They could do with some basic how-to advice, courtesy of southern Wisconsin’s most successful piano tuner.

In this new column, I’ll see if I can shed light on these mistakes and highlight the good things businesspeople can do, all the while drawing on the ideas that my father never got the chance to write in his book.

Dad was a gadget freak, always creating homemade television audio switches long before he had a remote control, or making numerous boxes and slots around his desk to hold things. He also was an early adopter of a car phone, and he put it to good use. One of his rules was that if he was running late or early for an appointment, he would call his clients and let them know. He was almost always early (because he scheduled well, but that’s a lesson for another time), so if they were ready for him to come early, he’d head to their house and get to work; if for some reason he was running late, he’d call and let them know, offering to reschedule to another day if the timing didn’t work for the client.

We are now many years into the world of smartphones and tablet computers and e-mail and texting. So why are the delivery people and the repair people and the home improvement people we contract to help us so often AWOL? It is easier than ever for them to let us know their schedule, but we are often less informed than we were in the precomputer days.

A colleague of mine tells this story: She took a day off — which means burning a day of vacation time, costing her real money — so she could be home for a repair person. This was the type of repair company that is hired by a large retail business to fulfill deliveries or install large purchases. She waited. And waited. And waited, until an hour after the scheduled delivery time when she called and was told the repair person was running late but would be there soon. More waiting, but the person never showed up.

At the end of the day, when she contacted the company, she was told the repair person was delayed at another client and couldn’t get to her home. Would she like to reschedule? Well, of course she would not; she found someone else to do the job.

I have had the same thing happen to me. Numerous times. Even when I (politely but firmly) let the company know that I had scheduled my entire day to be there for the delivery or the repair person, there is not so much as an apology for a missed appointment. Would I like to reschedule? Not if I can avoid it.

Today, practically everyone has a smartphone or at least a mobile phone; if a repair or delivery people lack one of those, they could still stop at a pay phone and call the customer or at least contact their company dispatcher and have them call the customer. Send an e-mail. You have my cell number? Text me. Just don’t not do anything. I’m an adult; I can take bad news. What I can’t take, and what will drive me to an alternative business in the future, is being treated as if my time is infinite but the company’s is ultimate.

If I’m stuck at home, let me know you’ll be late. I might not be thrilled, but at least I can plan my day. You’re running an hour late? O.K., then I know I have time to walk over to the store and pick up some lunch. Or your previous customer’s project turned out to be an all-afternoon thing and you can’t get to me? I understand things like that happen; let me know, give me a quick apology (no groveling necessary), and I’ll reschedule (probably on a weekend, though).

If I could find a common thread between the companies that are offenders in this manner, I would easily avoid them in the future. But I haven’t. Companies that have done this to me have been large and small, brand-names and never-heard-of-thems. Respecting your customer’s time is a great way to make sure they don’t come to hate you and warn their friends away from you.

There was a reason my father had more customers than he could handle. He knew how to handle his customers. He never acted as if they owed him loyalty; he knew he had to earn it with each and every contact. That ensured that he stayed in tune with his customers.

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