Are You Alienating Customers From Your Online Business?

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I’m not sure whether it’s because retailers are cutting back on their expenses and customer support, but lately I’ve had a rash of poor shopping experiences both online and in person. At a few of these places, I was so annoyed that I will never shop there again.

Since my wife and I run a store ourselves, I thought it would be a good idea to make a note of these annoyances so that we never make the same mistakes. Some of these things are subtle and probably wouldn’t bother the average person, but I’m pretty anal when it comes to customer support. Here are some of my pet peeves.

Stores That Reply With A Terse Email

Photo By Katie Bate

So I’m in the market for a new digital SLR camera. The other day I sent an email to an online camera store wondering if they had a certain camera in stock.

To Whom It May Concern:
I was wondering if you carry the Nikon D90 camera body in stock. I’m looking to purchase this camera body with the Nikkor 18-200m VR lens. Do you offer a kit that contains both items at a discount?

Here’s the reply I got.


This store didn’t even have the decency to respond in a complete sentence. They could have said “We apologize but we do not bundle this camera body with this lens”, or “Unfortunately, we don’t carry these items”. Anything would have been better than a single word answer.

Note to all store owners: Even if you have a ton of customer emails to answer and you are in a hurry, make sure you at least write some sort of sentence. Be polite, pleasant and apologetic if necessary.

Stores That Give You A Lecture

There’s this shirt that I’ve been meaning to return but never found the time because of my busy schedule. By the time I made it out to the store, I was already beyond the return policy by a single day. Even though technically the return policy had elapsed, I tried to make the return anyway hoping for some leeway.

Me: I would like to make a return please.
Clerk: Sorry, but you have exceeded the return policy. The deadline for this return was yesterday.
Me: I’m off by only a single day. Can you make an exception? I would really appreciate anything that you can do.
Clerk: Sorry, but we can’t make any exceptions. If I were to allow you to make this return, then I would be forced to take everyone else’s late return. You really should have come back sooner. Why did you wait so long to make the return?
Me: I’m sorry. I was unable to make it out any earlier.
Clerk: Well what do you want me to tell you? It’s your fault for missing the deadline. Try not to procrastinate so much next time. Next in line please!

Was that little lecture necessary? A simple no would have sufficed. Instead, this clerk made me feel even worse for missing the return deadline.

Stores That Nickle and Dime The Customer

The other day my wife and I were shopping at the mall and decided to stop for a bite to eat. Our little daughter was getting fussy as well so we decided to feed her at the same time. One of the hassles of feeding our daughter outside the house is that she requires her milk to be warm otherwise she refuses to eat. Most of the time, we carry a Thermos with hot water to heat up her milk but we forgot to bring it that day.

Me: I’d like to order a chicken sandwich and a chocolate croissant please.
Clerk: Sure. Would you like anything to drink?
Me: I’ll have an ice tea and a Coke.
Clerk: Your total will be $13.74 please.
Me: Oh, I almost forgot. Could I get a cup of hot water as well? We need to heat up our daughter’s bottle.
Clerk: You new total is $14.25
Me: What? I thought you said the total was $13.74
Clerk: That was before you ordered the hot water.
Me: I’m sorry. I don’t need bottled water, just tap is fine.
Clerk: Your total is still $14.25
Me: Are you seriously charging us for tap water? I don’t even see it on the menu.
Clerk: I apologize sir, but that is our policy.
Me: I’d like 2 napkins too. How much for those? (with a hint of sarcasm)
Clerk: Those are free sir.

Our order was already being prepared so I paid the money, but I was pissed. 50 cents for hot water!! It’s one thing if I just asked for water without buying anything but I was a paying customer. I will never be going to that cafe ever again.

As store owners, it’s absolutely crucial to have your customer leave your store feeling happy and satisfied. This cafe effectively alienated my future business over 50 cents. Not only that but I’m going to tell my friends also to never eat there again.

Stores That Make A Customer Feel Bad To Make A Sale

This particular story happened to my wife when she went to get her hair styled at this new salon that opened up near our house. She normally goes to a different place, but decided to give this one a shot. Big mistake.

While the haircut was well done, the entire time the stylist tried to sell her other products by making her feel bad

“Your hair is so dry and flaky. Have you considered trying this shampoo?”

“Your hair is out of control. I have the perfect styling gel that will do the trick”

“Your eyebrows are so bushy. Would you like a wax?”

“Your skin looks damaged and pasty. I have this perfect lotion for you.”

So while the haircut itself was fine, my wife left the salon feeling bad about her eyebrows, her hair and her skin. I don’t think she’ll be going back there again.

Stores That Force Their Opinion On You

It was our 5 year wedding anniversary a few months ago and I thought that I would commemorate the occasion by buying my wife a necklace. I already had an idea what to buy because my wife had dropped ever so subtle hints the last time we passed by the jewelry store.

This particular store did everything it could to steer me away from the item I wanted to buy and made me feel bad about the item I actually wanted to purchase.

Me: I’d like to see that necklace please
Clerk: What is the occasion?
Me: It’s our 5 year wedding anniversary.
Clerk: Congratulations! Are you sure you want to give her that particular necklace?
Me: What is wrong with THAT necklace?
Clerk: Oh nothing.
Me: Well if you must know, my wife has always wanted to carry a locket around her neck with pictures of our family.
Clerk: That is so sweet. But the one you have chosen is so simple. How about this one? This one is more suited to such a momentous occasion.

She pointed me to this gaudy locket encrusted with diamonds and sapphires. It was huge and ugly. My wife has very simple and elegant tastes. She wanted a simple white gold locket and chain. She’s also extremely petite, so I needed the smallest locket possible.

Me: No thanks. May I see that one please?
Clerk: Of course sir, but that pendant is so tiny. It will be too small for your wife. How about this other one?
Me: On second thought, I don’t think any of these are a good fit. Thank you for your time.

There was actually much more to the conversation than I wrote about above but the upshot was that I left the store annoyed. I was actually ready to buy the original necklace outright, but the sales lady kept trying to up sell me much gaudier items. If the shopkeeper just listened to what I wanted, it would have been the easiest sale ever.

Are You Driving Customers Away From Your Store?

Have any of these things ever happened to you? If you own a business, have you ever inadvertently done any of the above?

There is really only one rule of thumb when trying to get repeat business and referrals to your store or business. Just make sure your customer feels good about their purchase! Listen to your customers. If they want to buy a certain item, sell them that item. Make them want to come back for more.

In the examples above, I probably would have still purchased the camera from that online store had I received a polite reply via email. I would have been extremely grateful had the clothing store accepted my return and would be eager to shop there again. I wouldn’t be badmouthing the cafe over getting charged 50 cents. My wife would probably be going back to that salon and that jewelry store would’ve made a quick and easy sale.

In the grand scheme of things, these stores probably made some extra money using these tactics, but was it worth the effect on their reputation?

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21 thoughts on “Are You Alienating Customers From Your Online Business?”

  1. Now that the internet lets us circulate stories like this, I wonder if they get back to the people responsible, and if they realize that it’s not worth alienating a customer for 51 cents.

  2. @Hunter,

    I certainly hope so. There’s nothing I hate more than getting nickle and dimed. Don’t even get me started on the airline industry.

  3. This is way I avoid chain stores and restaurants for the most part (not sure where you went though). An exception to that is an occasional trip to Whole Foods when our local independent health food/grocery store is closed or when the farmers market isn’t going on.

    The camera store was just crazy! You would think that they would be trying to get all of the customers they can get. Unless you’re a photographer, a camera is considered a luxury item and people are cutting back on those things. They are also cutting back on photography services (wedding photos, etc) so that hurts the photographers. I thought that camera stores would try to get all the sales they can get during this time. Good customer service would not only write a complete sentence telling you what they don’t have, but they would also offer alternatives.

    I also hate jewelry stores like that. We had a great experience at one of our local stores here in Berkeley. We were looking for an engagement ring, but not a classic diamond one, but something more creative/artsy, simple and less $$. The ring I got cost significantly less than typical rings, but the sales associate helping us was wonderful. On the outside, the store looks snooty, but everyone is really down to earth. She emailed us with status updates on the different styles we were looking for, she showed us rings in the price range that we gave her, her communication style was unbelievably warm. Her other customer was buying an $80K ring, but she didn’t treat us any differently.

    My fiancée didn’t mind he paid a little more for the ring than he would have at another local store that made us feel like we shouldn’t be there.

    She will get all of the referrals I can dish out.

  4. I’ve worked in some type of sales most of my life. Keeping customers is far more valuable than finding new ones. The satisfied customer will lead you to the new customers

  5. So true. Rude store/service owners/workers is the reason why sometimes we don’t go anywhere unless it’s highly recommended by others. Last Monday, my wife called in to our pediatric dental office to cancel an appointment. The receptionist asked why, and my wife said she didn’t want to expose my daughter to the strong and dusty winds outside, because she used to have an eye infection before. Instead of being helpful, the receptionist said, “That’s not a good reason to the appointment.”

    Worse yet, when my wife asked to reschedule, the receptionist condescendingly replied, “I think you should call back when there’s no strong winds outside.”

    WTF? I know Monday sucks for someone who hates her job, but this receptionist just drove us away, and took our patronage to a different office. You would think this recession forces business/services to try and retain their current customers. I guess not.

  6. Your post is so hilarious!! I find myself laughing at the various scenerios. But they are all so true. Even here in Singapore, customer service can be so poor. A simple “Please” or “Thank you” can be hard to come by. I also notice that I tend to buy more things from the salesperson who knows how to sweet-talk me.

  7. Hi Carla,

    Since you are in the Bay area, you might recognize the cafe that I’m talking about. It’s this little french cafe right next to the Sino restaurant on Santana Row. They will nickle and dime you for everything.

    Hi Rudy,

    That is ridiculous. I’ll bet that the dentist had no clue that the receptionist was rude to you. If I were inclined, I’d probably give the dentist a call and complain. Your story riles me up just thinking about it.

    Hi Susan,

    Agreed. Much of our business has been from referrals.

    Hi Evelyn,

    I’m surprised to hear you say that. Singaporeans (I apologize for the generalization) are among the most polite people that I’ve ever had to deal with. I think I’ve liked every Singaporean I’ve ever met. But I guess there are rude people everywhere in the world

  8. You’d think especially with the economy the way it is, companies should be going out of their way to make their customers not just happy, but downright ecstatic to do business with them and want to tell all their friends.

    Instead businesses like this will just look the other way and put the full blame on the economy for their declining sales.

  9. hi steve, i love your post. it’s the same here in malaysia. on the most part, these sales personnel are not really trying to come off as rude, it’s just that they’re very ignorant in the ways of doing sales. or, oftentimes, they don’t understand the customers and their(customers) needs, and the main reason being the language barrier. of course, if the situation was such that the personnel was even a little rude, or condescending, i’m out of there and will probably never return.

  10. Hey Adam,

    Glad you stopped by! I completely agree with you which is why I find it ironic given this economy. The only way I can rationalize this behavior is that I was dealing with workers that have no stake in the business. I’m sure that if I spoke to the manager or owner that things would have been different.

    Hi Cindy,

    It pains me to say this but I find that Asians are among the worst violators of customer service in general. I’m not sure why, but customer service doesn’t seem to be valued as much. But of course I’m generalizing.

  11. hello Steve, I’ve been in the marketing industry for few years and what I’ve learned is how to treat a customer. Most of the time the store owners and clerks look for few dollars/cents of profit. If you want to make a customer return to your store then sometimes you have to give up those small profits.

    If you try to sell everything on the first day, then off course the customer will go away. Your examples are so real and you can add more as you search your life archive. The thing with the beauty saloon happened with me to when I went for a haircut in a regular saloon. I don’t went to that saloon again because I don’t want to be treated bad.

    As a store owner/sales person, if you provide better things in the first few days, you can be able to capture that customer and make him come again and again.

  12. Oh, wow, these are classic, I just wish they weren’t so common. A few of my own.

    1. Ordering an Iced Chai Tea and getting it hot, then politely asking for a cup of ice because I had ordered it over ice. The counter person then tried to charge me additonal 80 cents. Why? Why does an Iced Chai cost 80 cents more than a hot one?

    2. Going to an online store to order a product advertised as “Any configuration you want” when I submitted my request, I received this response back “Not going to happen”, that was it, that was the entire response. I was willing to pay whatever amount!

    3. In trying to book a vacation, I recently contacted 4 all inclusive outfitters, giving them dates, number of people in our party, and all relevant information. They each responded back with a few questions. No problem, I answered all questions immediately. That was 4 weeks ago, none of them have responded back!

    4. In pricing silk screening for a large t-shirt order I was doing, I contacted several companies, one company took 6 weeks to return my initial call!

    I have money! I WANT to give it to you, work with me!

  13. Hi Tamal,

    Sounds like you have experience in these matters. The main problem is that store owners are so focused on making the sale today that they don’t even consider the long term prospects of having repeat business.

    Hi ChaiG,

    I must say that your stories are crazier than mine. 80 cents for ice! That’s nuts! It’s just ironic that you have the money and are practically trying to give it away yet no one will take it. I do wonder how some of these places stay in business.

  14. They are all great examples.

    I think one of the keys to providing good customer service is to watch the workload/stress level of the personnel. I know short and curt e-mail is not a great service, but sometimes when I’m overwhelmed, I ignore, postpone or do a rush-job on responses.

    A great customer service is easier said than done.


  15. Hi Ari,

    I honestly rather be ignored for a day or so and get a full response. It just doesn’t look good to reply with such a terse email no matter what business you are in.

  16. Omg, that makes me so mad. I’ve had a bunch of bad experiences lately too. One was from Canadian Living magazine – I sent an email inquiring why I had not received my latest issue and received a form letter back with an offer to respond to any further questions. I emailed her back and then received an identical form letter.

    I’ve also been getting attitude lately when I try to use coupons. The cashiers are so rude about it! But being charged 50¢ for hot water – unbelievable!

    1. Hi Saver Queen,

      Your situation with Living magazine is so wrong. Recently my wife tried to cancel her subscription with Yahoo music and had a hell of a time doing so. When are these places going to understand that they are just destroying their reputation and future revenue?

  17. Love this post! First time reader and I will be back………thus proving what should be a simple concept. Customer service is just horrible anymore. I am extremely excited when I go to a grocery store and find someone who actually knows how to bag my groceries. It may seem silly, but I prefer my uncooked chicken and beef and lunch meat and fruit to NOT be bagged together. I often try to bag myself but in some stores they bag as they go……then the clerk gives me a dirty look when I re-bag. Normally the dirty look is about all the communication I receive. Even if it is not part of your training, showing common courtesy shouldn’t be so difficult.

  18. I am constantly surprised by how stupid some businesses are, with regards to customer service. There is so much competition out there that the only thing that really sets you apart is how much, or little, you value the people who spend their hard-earned money in your establishment. I agree with the previous comment; I hope now that we can all circulate this information, these stores will get their act together. Thanks for taking them to task!

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