The Internet has improved communications — and at the same time made things worse.
Take the topic of customer complaints. With any grocer’s website, you’ll find comment strings that swing both directions. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for a grocer to measure how they’re perceived in any given neighborhood.
That is, until they see customer counts decline, basket sizes reduced and sales volume plummet.
Before the Internet, our company put comment cards at every checkstand. The customer could drop them off at our store or mail them to our home office. We took these cards seriously. It was our policy to personally answer every one, positive or not.
We typically phoned the customer. We had a routine, using talking points that followed the familiar path: apologizing for inconvenience, acknowledging the problem and offering some kind of resolution. Typically, the comments ranged from a customer not finding her favorite cereal to substandard service and a thousand topics in-between.
Most of the time, the customer was overwhelmed that someone cared enough to follow up.
But occasionally we received the poison-pen comment card with only an address.
We received one of these once, listing quality complaints about our produce and meat. Dave, the market manager, and I had good reputations and great sales to show for our efforts. So we responded in the last remaining way — a visit to the customer’s home.
Usually, these visits went over well. The customer was almost always impressed that we took the time to visit, especially because we always took along a fruit basket and gift certificate (along with our boyish charm).
This time the customer was neither impressed nor forgiving. She scolded both of us right there on her front stoop for the faults — real or perceived — she thought about our store.
It happens. Dave and I sheepishly offered assurances that these shortcomings would not happen again, if only she continued to shop with us — which she assured us was not likely. She reluctantly accepted our token gifts.
“I’ll find someone to give these to,” she said coldly.
It hurt. However, it was a smart policy to answer every comment card, one way or another, even if it meant getting chewed out on someone’s front porch.
Eventually even this customer returned to shop our store. Because we had extended the olive branch, we were then able to greet her by name, and it empowered her to know that she had some say.
As it should be. After all, as with all customers, she is our boss.
Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.
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