Small things

Small things can be the opportunities for big reputations, or they can be stepping stones to disaster. LOUIS COUTTS

Louis Coutts

By Louis Coutts

The first time it was only $3.35 and I wasn’t going to worry about it until I just glimpsed at the pile of invoices on the desk of the service manager of the auto company that had just serviced my motor vehicle. Sure enough, there was the same amount on this other invoice as well as my own.

What drew my attention to the amount was that it was a charge for replenishing the wind screen fluid, which is something I had done the previous evening. I drew this to the attention of the manager who, instead of believing me, called the service centre and got no answer.

So, I thought, “it isn’t worth worrying about such a small amount. I simply won’t come back.” I was also a little upset that the guy didn’t believe me. So after that I took my car to another company.

I moved address and the old company was just around the corner so I thought I would give them another go. This time, I filled the wiper fluid container to over flowing. You simply could not get a millilitre into the tank.

Guess what? You bet! A couple of days later when I went to collect the car after a major service, there was the bill for about $2500 and I searched through the detail and this time the amount for wiper fluid refill was $4.45.

It had gone up by 33% since the last time. I gave the guy a chance and pointed out that he was charging me for something that wasn’t done. Instead of believing me, he defended the fee despite the fact that I pointed out to him that not only was it impossible to put any fluid in the tank but the likelihood is that the fee was computer generated and insensitive to whether or not a vehicle required wiper fluid.

No amount of discussion could persuade them to see it from the point of view of the customer and so they enlisted the assistance of the manager who offered to refund me $4.45! “You don’t get the point. It isn’t about a lousy $4.45, it is about insulting your customer”. “Well, I don’t want you to go around bad mouthing us,” was his reply. “Why would I do that and do you think that a refund of $4.45 would alter my opinion of you?”.

So I walked out and the manager went with me and there on the door of my lovely German car was a large grease mark left by the service people who had miraculously placed some wiper fluid in the brimming wiper fluid tank.

What’s the point of all this? The number of times I have seen businesses get into strife because of little things. I have a lot of friends and tell them about my experience; so they don’t go to that business just because of some little thing that then turned into the big issue of the business not trusting the customer.

I was in a hotel in Killarney in Ireland one evening with my wife. I can still remember the name. I ordered a bottle of beaujolais with our meal. One smell of it and I realised it was “corked”. I called the waiter and told her. Did she smell it herself? Did she argue with me? Did she go to the boss for instructions as to what to do? No to all of the above!

She simply apologised, disappeared and came back with a replacement bottle. So I remember Robertson’s Hotel, Killarney, and tell anyone who is going to Killarney to go to Robertson’s.

Little things are so important, but what is more important from the point of view of sustainable growth is respect for the customer.

There is the famous story about Nordstrom, which is a major up market department store in the USA. It has a reputation for taking back any goods sold and refunding the person returning the goods. One day in Seattle, it is said that a guy walked into the Nordstrom store with a worn motor car tyre and wanted his money back. The shop assistant asked him how much he paid for the tyre and he said $3.50. So, she immediately refunded the $3.50 and then said to the guy: “By the way sir, we don’t sell tyres.”

Nordstrom is renowned for this story (the authenticity of which is fiercely contested and if people want to know the details of this contest they can email me) and has gone on to establish one of the most successful up-market department stores in the USA. Its reputation for respect for the customer and for its staff is legendary and fills case studies of leading business schools in the USA.

Sometimes it really hurts to accept the customer’s version of the situation but, as my mentor at Colombia used to say: “The only rule of management you have to remember is that the customer is always right.”

However, having said that, Lands End, the famous mail order firm in the USA, which has a policy of accepting returns, no questions asked, also has a computer system that tracks guys who order business shirts once a fortnight and to return them the following fortnight. They say to such customers: “Sorry, your expectations of us are greater than we can meet, and as we pride ourselves on meeting or exceeding the expectations of our customers and we can’t satisfy yours, we have decided not to accept further orders from you so that you will not be disappointed.”

Small things can be the opportunities for big reputations, or they can be stepping stones to disaster.


Louis Coutts left law and became a successful entrepreneur. His blog examines the mistakes, follies and strokes of genius that create bigger, better businesses. Click here to find out more.

To read more Louis Coutts blogs, click here .



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