April 1, 2019
The time machine

The time machine:

If only I could have made that customer happy


Rod McDonald I had 12 to 16 high school students work at my garden centre every year. They were great! They were the legs of the organization; carry-outs, directing traffic, restocking the peat moss and all of the other fun jobs. They had enthusiasm and they had hustle, something I admire. They also had brains. I respected that while they were in an entry level job, they were destined to go on to important careers — and they did.

One 16-year-old girl that worked for me in 1995 and ’96, was exceptionally smart. She also had a bit of lip, which drove her mother crazy. I told her mom that highly intelligent kids grow up to be interesting people. Of course, her mother, going through the battles of raising a teenage girl, took little comfort in my prediction. No surprise here, but that lippy 16-year-old went onto become a top-ranked lawyer. Her chutzpa served her well in that profession. 

This girl of 16 asked me a question I had never been asked before. The question: “What has been your biggest regret in life?” Wow! I was 45 at the time, and I had no ready-made reply. I thought about it for a few minutes and gave her my answer. 

My biggest regret of my life, had been how poorly I had treated my mother and my beloved aunt at my Grade 12 graduation. I had, and I am engaging in understatement, a bit too much attitude at that particular moment in time. I said those things that stay with you for the rest of your life, and while forgiveness may be granted, no one ever forgets that you were the ass who spoke those words.

“ When I was rested and not under stress, I offered amazing levels of customer service. Then there were those times, in the spring especially, when I could be curt, defensive and snarky. I got my proverbial ‘knickers in a knot’ over small things."

Words did not fail me. “I would tell my younger self not to take myself so seriously, to lighten up and to learn, again and again, the value of customer service.” 

I have no explanation for why I chose that ceremony to be rude, other than I was 17, and I am not certain if that is an explanation or a rationalization. I had been raised better than that, but I laid aside all of my upbringing to speak my mind. I had yet to learn the intense wisdom of speak in haste, repent at leisure.

My 16-year-old inquisitor was surprised. She had anticipated something much grottier, something that contained more danger and risk. At 16, none of us can imagine a regret for having been rude to our mom. Yet, that was my answer and still is today. This was, yet, another one of my incredibly long introductions. 

I WAS AT THE MANITOBA CONFERENCE in Winnipeg this February, as a speaker. A student stayed after my presentation and asked a similar question to the one in my introduction. He queried: “What advice would you give to yourself, if you were 20 years old, and starting out in this trade?” Great question from a student! While he did not ask for my biggest regret, he was asking what I would change — which is close enough for me.

Why was that my answer? Experience taught me that it would have been in my best interest to choose my words more carefully than I did at times. When I was well rested and not under stress, I could and did offer up amazing levels of customer service. Then there were those times, in the spring especially, when I was swamped with reorders, scheduling, and all of the other tasks that come with the job. It was at those times when I could and would be curt, defensive and snarky. I got my proverbial ‘knickers in a knot’ over small things.

I get it. All of us face stress, sometimes an incredible amount, especially during the spring rush. One of my friends, from this trade of ours, called me in May, at 11 a.m., to tell me he didn’t have time to talk. Then he hung up. He wasn’t being funny, rude or eccentric. He was stressed. He was overloaded. I called his sister and told her to check on her brother. She assured me they were quite aware that he was running on empty. All of us share that experience, of running on fumes. 

People who are not from our trade, even family members, do not understand what happens to us, the levels of stimuli we experience. I have had family members think I should just stop everything to go for brunch when there were line-ups at all of the tills. How do you explain, nicely, that you cannot turn it off? Brunch is a July or February activity, not a May or June thing.

ENOUGH ABOUT US, back to customer care. How often have we witnessed others being legalistic? They defend their behaviour by relying upon the splitting of hairs as to what they said and how they said it. They have forgotten that the other party, the customer, has left feeling they have not been taken care of and that is what they wanted. When we split hairs and are busy defending our positions, we often forget that adage: Long after who said what is forgotten, all that will be remembered is how you made them feel. 

Think back to a place that you dealt with, perhaps for a number of years, and when you really needed their assistance, they were not there for you. Did you feel abandoned? As if they did not value you as a customer? That is a situation that we have to learn to avoid when we deal with our customers. 

I often tell the story of the customer who returned a hanging basket of geraniums that had been purchased the year before. She said she had waited for them to start growing again, but they did not appear to be alive. I explained to her that hanging baskets were annuals and they were not meant to live a second year. When I tell that story, people from the trade and gardeners, laugh. We wonder how could someone not know this? Yet, there she was.

Had I to experience this interaction again, I would have given her a new basket, along with the explanation, and wished her well. It would have cost me so little and yet I dug my heels in because everyone knows hanging baskets are not guaranteed for a year, right? Wrong. She gave me such a good story it had to have been worth a hanging basket.

I should have, I could have and I most certainly would have — if I had the chance again. 

I work part-time in the spring, at a small, family-run greenhouse. I have encouraged them to be much more generous with their customers than I ever was, as it is easier for everyone. I realize, you do get taken advantage of now and again, but not too often. However: You cannot make policy based upon one customer experience. When a customer calls to say their basket does not look great, we give them another one. No hassle, just come down and get another one. And why not? As we finish the greenhouse season, we give away the leftover baskets to senior homes, so why not a few as customer service? Last year, we only had to replace a handful. The cost is minimal when you think about it. Always be building that precious customer base and protect it at all times. 

Being at our best with customer service always keeps us 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.