Monday, February 20, 2017

She's Too Important!

“The business of America is business.” So declared the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. American business is the great engine of commerce that has made the United States into a global economic powerhouse. It’s what enabled us to switch rapidly from manufacturing for a consumer economy to manufacturing for a wartime economy during World War II. And it’s what helped define the prosperity of the Eisenhower years in the 1950s, the golden era of American consumerism.

We’re no longer in the golden era for American business; to the contrary, American business now languishes in a tarnished era. This is not good for our country or our society. We must restore the business standards that enabled American business to thrive generations ago. To do this, we must first identify the problem. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my recent series of posts on the sad state of American business.

When I was growing up there was a saying that “the customer is always right.” Now obviously, no one is always right but the point of the aphorism was the recognition that the customer is the most important element of any business. If no one buys your product or service, you don’t have a business. This is the foundation of the concept of customer service. It was perhaps best embodied in an advertising campaign by the Avis car rental company; noting its competitor Hertz had been ranked Number One in the industry, Avis cleverly launched a series of ads with the tagline “We’re Number Two: We have to try harder.”

That was then; this is now. I received an incentivization letter from my car dealership inviting me to speak to them about my expiring lease so as to lease a new car. I realize they send these form letters to every customer but as it was signed by a specific individual, I called and asked to speak with her. The young salesman who took my call insisted he could help me. When I insisted on speaking to the person for whom I had asked, he told me the woman was "too important to speak to me."

Now, I’ve spoken to congressman and senators, governors, and even the president of the United States (not the current one). I've spoken to famous actors and entertainment celebrities, and to many well-known public figures. I've spoken to many individuals considered to be the most preeminent in their fields of endeavor. Yet I have never been told by them or their assistants that they were "too important" to speak with me. This is an all-time low for customer service experiences, particularly in sales. I've worked in sales and you never tell a customer that someone in your operation is too important to speak to them, or conversely, that the customer is not important enough to speak to one of your employees. Mind blown.

Well, that was an amazing phone call. This is a major automobile dealership. Where is the employee training? These employees will one day move into management positions without having learned the basics that any student would learn his or her first year in business school. This portends a major problem for American business, which will spiral into a further decline.

Ten minutes later, I received a call from the same young man telling me he had walked over to her office and "she's out sick today." How convenient. But, he added,  if I tell him what I wanted to talk to her about, he could handle it for me. (I told him she could call me when she feels better). This was an obvious lie from which I could infer two possibilities: Either the salesman never left his seat and simply called back 10 minutes later in an attempt to make a commission, or he did go to her office and was told to tell the caller she was out sick. So either he was lying on his behalf or on her behalf. Neither is an acceptable business practice.

It’s also a dumb sales move. Sales is about establishing trust between the buyer and seller. Starting off any relationship with lies, let alone offensive comments, is pure stupidity.

Yes, the customer is not always right. But establishing and accepting a business culture in which employees believe they are more important than the customers they are there to serve, and that it is acceptable to lie to customers or demean them, is further evidence of the decline of American business to the detriment of our society as a whole. Corporate executives and middle managers must become cognizant of what is happening within their own businesses further down the food chain and take corrective actions to reverse this decline.

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