April 1, 2015

WHO, and WHAT stresses you?


I was hanging out with a group of my friends, one night, several years ago. I told them how this customer had given me a hard time, earlier that day, and that I didn’t handle it very well. “You would think that after all of these years of working retail, I would have a thick skin, but I don’t. I can handle most situations but, every now and again, one person will slip through my defence perimeter and get to me.” I don’t think I am the only one who shares that feeling.

I was listening to a fellow who owns a chain of furniture stores speaking at a convention. He told us this story which resonated with most of the listeners. “You have a hundred customers in a day. Ninety say very little and just buy what they came into buy. Nine stop to tell you how great your store is and the last one rips into you, telling you how terrible your product, your store and your service are. It is now 4:00 a.m. and you are supposed to be asleep. Who is in bed with you besides your wife?” The audience laughed because it was so true. The power of negative energy can overwhelm anyone, if we let it.
I wish that I was really smart, on a guru level, and that I had a sure-fire way of dealing with difficult people and situations. Rest assured, if I did, I would try to bottle the product and no doubt, make millions selling it to people, just like you and me. I don’t. I don’t have any guaranteed way of preventing myself from being upset when my buttons are pushed in their right order. What follows are a few ideas, some from me and some from others, on how handle those tough ones each of us has to face.

Michel Touchette from Jeffries Nurseries and I were talking about the all-too-common comment, “I can buy it cheaper at this other store.” Michel said his best response is, “That is an excellent price,” and then he shuts up, waiting for the other person’s response. Michel said that quite often, the other person will after a moment of reflection add, “It’s probably not as good as yours,” and carry on with shopping.

Stay the course
When carrying out estimates for landscaping jobs, I would on occasion, encounter someone wanting me to match another company’s alleged price. I never cut my price, as I felt it was a terrible habit to develop and that more often than not, you would risk losing the respect of the customer. When presented with another’s lower price, I would simply say, “Each of us is free to set our price, based upon what our work is worth and each of us is free to choose the company we think will do the best job for us.” I never ever slammed the other company. That does not impress a customer because they almost expect that you are going to say something along those lines. I believe that I was better off to take the higher road, even if it meant not getting that job. You might think that the people who I delivered an estimate to would proceed with the lower-priced competitor, but they did not. I signed four out of five of those customers and at my price. They were testing me, and I assume that I passed their test.

Gerry Schroer was a legend as a salesman for Bailey’s Nursery out of Minnesota; at least he was here in the western part of the country. He taught me this technique: It was Christmas time and we were selling Zygo (Christmas) cacti. Ours were in a four-inch pot with three cuttings, full and in bloom. We had a few customers come in claiming that Walmart had the same thing for a dollar less. I went to Walmart, bought one of their plants and put it on display right beside mine. I posted the sales slip as proof of purchase. The plant from Walmart was in a three-inch pot, had one cutting and it was much smaller and insignificant compared with ours. After doing that, I never had a single person mention the dollar difference again.

Having written a few paragraphs about price comparisons, let me write this: If you have an above-average number of customers wanting to compare your prices with chain stores, then I would suggest that you need to upgrade your customer base. Walmart and you should not be sharing a customer base. If you are sharing that base, you are going to lose. Walmart is very good at selling cheap goods cheaply. Your market is selling the best goods with real service at a higher price.

I fully recognize, having learned from experience after experience, that stress is a one hundred per cent internally-generated emotion. On a good day, I handle everything. On a bad day, I handle very little. There were days when a rude customer would make me laugh and the next day, the same behaviour would get to me. I really don’t have any sage advice except to say, take a deep breath, relax, and remember that when you open your doors to the public, you have to accept what walks through those doors.

Sometimes best to walk away
My friend, Jimmy Moore, owned a Dairy Queen here in Regina. One night, a dad with his wife and three kids were having Royal Treats. The man flagged Jimmy down and let him have it because the week before, the fellow had been to McDonald’s for ice cream cones and it had cost him five bucks. Now, at Jimmy’s DQ, it was costing him fifteen bucks. Jimmy tried to be rational and point out that they had purchased five items, each of which had cost three dollars and were not an eighty-five cent ice cream cone. The dad didn’t buy Jimmy’s assertion. Jimmy pointed out that his prices were clearly posted, that he didn’t trick people into buying an item only to pull a fast one at the till. The dad still didn’t buy it. Jimmy realized that the fellow was going to vent and no amount of discussion was about to change that. “Enjoy your Royal Treats,” and with that, Jimmy walked away. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do if the other person is on a roll.

One of my pet peeves, no doubt shared by most greenhouse and garden centre operators, was on that gorgeous day in May, when the customers were lined up six deep at the cash registers, a yahoo would shout, “This place is nothing more than a licence to print money!” I would always think, to myself, where was this fellow when it was twenty below a month ago, and every furnace that I owned was running full blast around the clock. While the gas company was rubbing their hands in glee, there was not a customer to be seen.

Disarm with humour
Another time, when we were swamped with customers on one of those warm May weekends, a fellow asked in a loud voice, “Why are your prices so high?” Now, my answer was not text book professional, but I thought to myself, “If you want to play rough, let’s go.” I said, equally as loud as we now had an audience, “I keep my prices up to keep the riff raff from shopping here. You don’t want to shop with the riff raff do you sir?” He thought he was going to embarrass me but his listeners were now laughing at him. Perhaps I lost him, but some days in every retailer’s life, that price is worth it.

It is difficult to make every customer happy when we have so many in such a short period of time. We try our best to have the right products, the right price and the right service available at all times, but, and it is a big but (no pun intended), we fall short. The senior who was yelling at me because, “Everything I wanted in white singles, you only have in white doubles and everything I wanted in blue doubles, you only have in blue singles.” I really wanted to ask, “Do you think I planned it that way, sir? Do you think I sat down to make up my bedding plant order and I thought of how I could irritate you and only you?” I didn’t. I told him, “I’ll try harder next year to have what you want.” I wasn’t appeasing him. I just wanted the conversation to end. It was a long day and I was tired.

I wasn’t the best at responding to customers and I don’t pretend that I was. One of my heroes for customer response was my friend Jan Pederson at Shelmerdine’s in Winnipeg. Jan had that uncanny ability to say to an irate customer, “Let’s make it right for you,” and the situation would resolve itself with Jan’s guidance.

I had a staff member named Natalie who worked in the greenhouse and she equalled Jan in his customer skills. One night, a woman calls out from many feet away, holding up a pack of zinnias, “Why are these so small?” Natalie moves in closer to the woman, and quietly says, “Those are the perfect size to transplant. Any taller and they would fall over. You don’t want them any bigger than these.” The woman immediately calmed down, thanked Natalie for her assistance and carried on shopping. Now why don’t I know that is what I need to say?

Dealing with customers, staff and people in general, is always going to have its moments. The majority are going to be easy to satisfy, to make happy, for lack of better words. There are always going to be those who question you, using hostile words, but they settle down with the right response. Then, there is always going to be that one out of a thousand that no matter what you say and do, will never be happy. You can offer to cut off your right arm and they will still not be satisfied. I started out in this trade in 1977 and I have finally figured out that those people, you cannot appease. They were not happy long before they ever walked into your place of business. They are equally unhappy when they are in the grocery store and the drycleaners. You will never change them.

My funniest story of a person that you could never make happy is this one. I prided myself on having the best selection of fall bulbs in town. Each September, a woman would arrive to inspect our selection and announce, “Your selection is disappointing so I have to go elsewhere.” After a couple of years, we looked forward to her arrival as it was the kickoff to the bulb season.

All of us are supposed to keep our proverbial balance when it comes to difficult customers. If we can keep some semblance of that balance, then we will stay on the road to success.

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.