The pursuit of my love of rugs has been neither an easy nor an enviable endeavour, and if I am being frank, up to this point it could best be described as an “expensive hobby.” For you see, I do not descend from the more monied classes and accordingly building a rug company – such as it is – has been a slow process, fraught with stress, anxiety, depression, fear, countless delays, and all of those other words best not mentioned in polite company, let alone amongst your peers. It has taken its toll on my personal life in ways measured in innumerable “I’m Sorrys”, “I Knows”, “You’re rights”, and the worst “I’m sorry too” – reserved for when polite turns to impolite approaching malice. So innumerable in fact are these tolls, that on the bleakest days, the best mustered smile and feigned “Good” in “Good Morning” barely mask the darkness within as it spills into the everyday. But this is not a singular story. Rather, this is a story about all of us, how we all fight our own demons, and how we (as purveyors of fine woollen wares) engage in the rhetoric of sales against the most daunting of demonic possessed adversaries from the abyss: The Customer.
It is worthy of note as we begin to clarify and state emphatically that we are all customers of someone. We all buy things. Sometimes we resell them, sometimes not. The specific mundane nuances of every possible sales transaction and service interaction need not concern us as we go forward. No, only the fact that collectively, we (as a whole) are both customer and salesman or saleswoman, need stay top of mind. Shall we then? Let’s shall.
But I am the Customer!!
It is with one hundred percent (100%) certainty I can say without doubt that you have heard the contemporary expression “The customer is always right.”, and while there is dispute regarding whether it was an English Chap or an American Buckaroo who foolishly proclaimed customers to be the ultimate infallible arbiters of decision making, the fact remains this is now the go to expression used by self entitled customers attempting to extract unreasonable amounts of customer service from a business. It is also fitting that in our unreasonable and unerring ways, we unironically, misquote the expression, but since we cannot be wrong, what does that matter anyway? So in our (read: my) version of this particular customer service parable we are going to start where people of style and class have always turned when they need borrowed credibility: The French!
In 1908 César Ritz (1850-1918), the celebrated Swiss French hotelier is said to have coined the phrase “Le client n’a jamais tort.” that is: “The customer is never wrong.” Now Mssr. Ritz, for those perhaps not familiar with his work, was no mere night auditor of a chain of discount hotels, rather he helped define luxury in a gilded age and his influence is still felt in finer hotels and restaurants worldwide. But back to his approach to service: He rightly elevates the customer to a place of seniority, of privilege over those serving him or her, but he also rightly reserves the absolute of being correct, of being “right” from them. He further does not claim this right for himself, and that ladies and gentlemen is the cornerstone of great service. To add more fuel to the fire I bring you a quote more contemporary in nature from our friends at Disney: “The customer may not always be right, but they are still the customer.”
Semantics, nuances, subtleties perhaps lost in translation aside, the intervening century since Mssr. Ritz first attempted to codify exemplary service has not been kind to customers, nor to those who serve them. We now live in an era where every small failing, every delay, every interaction is adversarial. I as the salesman am certainly trying to screw you the customer over, just as you, the customer feel as though anything you demand, err “request”, is reasonable without bound. It is this scenario that brings us finally to a short story from years past.
Well you Praised them and I don’t agree.
A few years ago I wrote some praising comments about a rug showroom, the specifics of those comments and the showroom in question need not concern us, other than to say: I know the owner, I like him, and I know he provides exemplary service. With that in mind, and we presume with the aide of Google, a customer of his found “The Ruggist” and thought, oddly, that I would be the perfect person to seek out for free advice regarding her displeasure with the service received from him. I might also add, she is an attorney and found it perfectly acceptable to attempt to consume my time for free, but of course, as “the customer” – though not my customer, she found no fault in this logic. Even when I asked her about this, and “what was I supposed to do about this – not my – problem?” she believed I had some moral obligation to help her, simply because she felt wronged, and because I praised the vendor at the centre of her displeasure.
So here it is, some four years later and I am finally helping her out, by telling her story, and what I did with the info she gave me. At first I phoned her back and listened. Perhaps she did have a juicy tidbit worthy of an exposé, my God, would that not be awesome?! Yeah, but no. Instead she lamented in painful detail (much like my writing and just like every “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song“-esque customer service story) how she felt she was right, he was wrong, and how vengeance of some nondescript form should be enacted upon the offending showroom. Afterward, I thanked her for contacting me, told her the only way I would possibly be involved was to retell the story as as example of customer service, and I bid her good day. I then phoned the showroom for their version of the same story.
Pleasantries dispensed with we immediately got to the core of the matter. Yes, her rug had been delayed and not delivered on time. You of course now see the unforgivable transgression made by the showroom at the core of her displeasure. A rug, made to order for her, was late. The end of days was certainly upon her, and as God as her witness (I made that part up) she was convinced this deserved some level of atonement. Upon further discussion with the owner, more details, specifically exculpatory ones the lawyer failed to mention, surfaced. Oh! She was slow at making decisions that delayed the approval of the strike-offs, and thus the finished rug. How shocking! And how shocking that she would omit this. It’s as though she was trying to make the situation “not her fault”. Condescension on my part aside, the truth, which most often exists in the combined versions of the story, was that yes she had delayed her decisions, and yes the rug was behind in the production schedule, and in the end the rug was not in her possession by her arbitrary deadline.
When I was discussing this situation with the dealer we both, as veterans of the world of rugs, shared a laugh about the annoyances of customers (as both customer and salesman), and while I tend/ed to take a more cynical view on the situation, he reminded me that at the end of the day, he would do what he could to “make it right” as she was still his customer, and he wanted her to be happy. That having had been said, I finished my conversation with the dealer, thanked him for his time, and basically, because there really wasn’t much of a story there, left it at that until today.
Make it right, don’t be right.
I am a demanding customer. I demand you give me the service you said you would, at the price we agreed upon, and within the other specifics we discussed. I am also very demanding upon myself, trying to give you the service, pricing, and specifics we’ve agreed upon. Does this always happen? Of course not. When failures occur (either as customer or salesman) all we can do is attempt to make it right, given the newfound situation.
In examining the freeloading lawyer, it’s easy to see her frustration. The rug was behind schedule. From the dealer’s perspective, it’s easy to question why approving the sample took so long if deadlines were really that important. Of course, the customer was and is not wrong that it is unacceptable that the rug is late, but she is equally not right that some sort of recourse is required. The dealer is of course not wrong to critique his overseas supplier for whatever reason there was a delay no but he is also not right to exact retribution due perhaps to circumstance beyond the control of any living thing. To use the slightly annoying phrase that was popular with some of my former coworkers: “It is what it is.” or as we said back when I was in High School: “Shit happens.”
Just as my aforementioned stresses have negatively impacted my life, and by all means lead to regrettable overreactions at small failures of no consequence, so too does the unknowable impact everyone of us, and our customers. Maybe the lawyer was late making a colour decision because of family stress, or (God forbid) a car accident, or client obligations, so on and so forth ad nausea. Maybe the rug was late because of… Oh! The list here is even more daunting in scope is it not? I guess my point, (I’m really not sure there was one when this started….) is that when we are in our role as salesman it is our purpose to make things right, not to necessarily be right. That’s reserved for our role as the customer, when we get to be never wrong. That deference should drive our sales interactions with our customers, assuming they are actually our customers to begin with, but that’s a question for another day.
It was so important then,
it seems so unimportant now.
Do you remember High School? Do you remember how everything was important? Who to take to the dance? Should you even go to the dance? Will people make fun of the way you dance? Now do you remember yesterday? Did you sell a rug? Did you pay the staff? Did the staff show up for work? Is the rug made correctly? Oh to be able to go to that dance again this saturday night and forget about the rug that’s late and the demons inside.