business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Sometimes I just hate people…and you know who you are. A week ago, my wife and I were getting gasoline at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, which is one of the few states where self-service isn’t allowed.

These stations are large and each line handles two cars at a time. The car in front of us finished first and left, prompting the woman behind us to pull around and into the first slot. Of course, she did this in such a sloppy manner that when our fill-up was done (maybe 30 seconds later) she had managed to pin us in and, in the process, delay our entire line. It made me very cranky.

What really irritated me was this: the attendant working the pump saw what she did and failed to urge her to pull up just a little more, allowing traffic to continue flowing. In short, the driver was lazy, the attendant uncaring and the rest of us paid the price.

Now there’s little I can do about that (except urge you all to boycott the Mollie Pitcher rest stop—though that will do little good.) Rather, let’s use another example to remind us how employee inattention can turn well-meaning shoppers into absolute demons. And some of them have power.

Tony Kornheiser, who many know from his ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, has a local radio show in Washington. It’s fabulous if you (like me) enjoy listening to Tony essentially complain about everything in life. With each passing week, I find myself agreeing with him more, which worries and comforts me at the same time.

A week ago, Mr. Tony (as he is called) went out for ice cream with his son. To make a long story short, his trip was a disaster thanks to one customer who completed an order and left the shop only to return for more seconds later; and an elderly customer who cut in line and ordered the last bit of ice cream in the flavor that Mr. Tony craved. (There’s more to the story, but it is way funnier spoken than written.)

Mr. Tony went nuts and called out the store (and his displeasure) on the air—repeatedly. In the process he got sent loads of free ice cream. His son, however, made the best observation; that the problem in the store wasn’t the customers, it was the employees. After all, the employees could have easily observed that the one customer had jumped the line. And the employees could have explained to the customer who left that he didn’t have the right to return back to the front of the line.

In both cases, such action would have required the employees extending themselves a little. Of course, they would have been right to do it and all the customers would have known.

The problem is that customers can be demanding and at times irrational and employees get it all dumped on them constantly. But doing nothing is rarely a winning strategy either. In fact it’s a bigger loser. If we train our employees correctly they can figure out how to better handle the difficult moments.

If we don’t, we create demon customers who sometimes complain on the radio or websites, but who almost always will share the bad stories with friends and neighbors, silently killing your business in the process. It happens one story at a time.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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