January 27, 2006

Are you Nickel and Diming Your Customers?

Posted in customer service, management at 9:47 am by scottmaxwell

I have been traveling internationally this week (one of the reasons for my sparse postings) and I had an interaction as customer that made me examine how not to train your people.

Briefly, I was at the Airport in Munich Germany waiting for my flight to Moscow. I purchased a cigar at a shop using a credit card (I did not have any Euros, only U.S. cash). Then, I asked for some matches. The woman behind the counter told me that the matches were $0.10 Euro (a dime). I still did not have Euros and the credit card had already gone through for the cigar. I offered either U.S. cash or my credit card again.

At this point, the woman behind the counter could have offered to give me the matches, taken my U.S. cash, or even taken my credit card. Instead, she told me she couldn’t take the credit card for such a small purchase, wouldn’t take U.S. cash, and didn’t offer to give me the matches (I didn’t ask either, as I wanted to see what she would do). I walked out of the store with a cigar and nothing to light it with.

Needless to say, the lack of matches left a bad feeling for the shop, the airport, and even the country that was several orders of magnitude greater than the price of the matches…

What I took out of the experience:

1. If you train your customer service staff on policies and procedures, they are likely to follow them (e.g., matches cost money, don’t accept U.S. dollars, no credit card purchases below a certain threshold). Perhaps interjecting some principles (e.g., make sure the customer is treated well, don’t nickel and dime!) and allow your staff to break the rules when the result from the rules seems to go against the principles. This issue is particularly bad at large companies, but I continue to see opportunities for improvement at many small companies, including this small shop in the Munich airport…

2. If you don’t train your people on thinking about the needs of the customer and how your product might work for them (or not work for them) before the purchase is complete, you might end up with mismatched expectations.

postscript: I am writing this post from 30,000 using Lufthansa’s in flight internet connection. The airline and the country shot up a few orders of magnitude when I turned on my laptop in flight!


  1. Sekar Vembu said,

    I think you are missing a very crucial point here. The shops in the airport are not subject to the same competitive market place as the shops outside. Inside the airport you are a captive customer. And the shop assistants have evolved their behavior knowing full well you do not have a choice. I have personally seen far worse behavior in an airport in London. A waitress abusing a old lady for asking why her coffee is cold.

    Yet another proof that only competitive pressure can guarantee improved and friendlier customer service. And airport shops are not subject to any competition. Another thing works in their favor. That all their customers are in transit and hence are not repeat customers and hence they do not have any incentive for good customer service.

    But your point about breaking the rules to hold on to the principle of customer delight is quite valid. Only thing is that the example you took is not appropriate, I believe.


  2. scottmaxwell said,

    You raise some really good points that this “product market” environment has less incentive to offer good customer service than a lot of other product markets. I also agree that this is not the worst customer experience in the world. However, even with this little shop, I would bet dollars to donuts that they would have more happy customers and make more money if they managed differently. I truly doubt that they will do this, but if a little shop in the Munich airport could make more money, an software or internet company could make a few orders of maganitude more money.

    Thanks for the comments!


  3. Paul Hoff said,

    Your post reminded me of a story about the one rule posted at a very customer service oriented department store:
    “Use your best judgment.”

    I have to imagine that were this simple rule used in more service organizations you would get better services AND you could throw out a bunch of employee training mauals.


    Sent from Darling Harbor (Sydney) using my pocket pc and 3g phone.

  4. Imagine that perception you had of that store, that airport, that city (Munich), and of that country (Germainy); now apply that to the experiences a tourist might have while visiting the United States. It’s disappointing to think that such a small experience can have a such a huge implication on foreign policy and general popular international sentiment. But, that’s how we work as humans, assimilating the data we collect (as little as it might be) to make a judgement.

    Imagine the perception that a tourist might have when he/she tries to purchase something in at a store in New York City, where customer service isn’t exactly spectacular. The United States is the 2nd most visited country in the world and Germany is the 10th. As a result, our actions at home play such a crucial role in what people think of us abroad. With the ease of travel and the distribution of the Internet, more and more people will have exposure to making their own evaluations of a country.

    Imagine how quickly a negative perception of a country can accrue because of something so simple as poor customer service. Look at what poor customer service has done to France, which is the #1 most visited country in the world!

    To continue to be a world leader in business, it’s absolutely quintessential that we make customer service our number one priority, especially as the world continues to flatten and capital becomes more and more fluid across state lines….

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