Customer may not always be right, but they should be respected

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You’d think that, in the middle of a horrendous recession such as what we’re experiencing now, with Americans zipping their wallets shut, staying home and away from the malls, and eating in more often, companies would be falling all over themselves to provide superior customer service. As if their very lives depended on it. And if you consider just how close many companies are to declaring bankruptcy or shutting down altogether, what with tight credit markets and a shrinking customer base, their very lives actually do depend on it.

Well, maybe not for some people.

Case in point: my not-so-dependable Avon rep. Now, granted, my Avon rep is not a huge corporation (although the company that makes the products she sells is), but in a legal and technical sense she is a small business owner whose very existence depends on good customer service. Direct selling companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, and others rely on the reputation and services of their representatives to make money. Customers have an unlimited universe of options to choose from when it comes to commodities like beauty products.

Sure, brand loyalty can play a role in a customer’s choice of product, but in reality most women shop for cosmetics and skincare products like they do clothes: whatever catches their fancy. Even women who’ve experienced stellar results from a particular line will occasionally stray to a competing one, “just to try it out.” Alienating that enormous audience, especially at the point-of-transaction, can result in a loss of those customers.

I’ve worked with my Avon rep for a few months now, at least since last summer. She has a somewhat indifferent personality and can take days to respond to an online order request, if she does it at all. Usually I place an order online and then wait for her to call me when it comes in. I would appreciate an acknowledgment or even a simple “Thanks for your order,” whether via email or over the phone, but I’ve gotten used to her silence.

A month ago, however, I ordered several products on her Web site, and it was only yesterday that I heard from her, via a message left on my voicemail. She had mumbled something about a “mix-up” and how that resulted in the delayed order, but otherwise acted as if nothing was amiss.

Now, I ran out of my products weeks ago. I could have picked up the phone or shot her an email asking for an update, but frankly, why should I make the effort? I’m her customer, after all. As a writer and small business person, I’m busy enough without having to also add “Track down Avon Lady” to my to-do list.

Ironically, I had actually given up on her just an hour before she left that message. I broke down and finally contacted another Avon rep in town. The latter wasn’t much friendlier than my original one, but at least she thanked me for the order and promised me that she would get my products before I left Grand Junction in two weeks. After I hung up with her I saw the flashing light indicating a message on my telephone and heard my original Avon rep make that lame-ass excuse about my delayed order.

Good customer service? Not even close. Neither of these women bowled me over. I’ve worked as a Mary Kay rep before and understand that it can be a very demanding job. Representatives who reach the pinnacle of success — the pink car, the lavish Caribbean vacations — have done so through sheer hard work, dogged determination, and a killer customer service policy. They do the following, and more:

  • Return phone calls promptly.
  • Take every single opportunity to thank the customer: when the latter places the order, when they receive the order, when they pay for the order, and many, many other times in between orders.
  • Give the customer lots of opportunities to try out new products without commitment, i.e., free samples. Mary Kay — and I assume, Avon — sells inexpensive sample sizes to representatives as marketing tools. In the six months or so I’ve worked with my Avon rep, I’ve not once received a free sample.
  • Make it super-easy to order and receive their products. My Avon rep has not once visited my home. I usually pick up my order at her house. Now, caveat: usually my schedule is such that I would prefer to be able to just swing by her house rather than wait for her to come to me. She lives only five minutes away, after all. Still, sometimes I get the feeling that it’s actually an inconvenience for her to make the delivery.
  • Never treat you as if you’re an inconvenience.

My Avon rep reminds me sometimes of something I read about Dolly Lenz. It’s said that the Manhattan power broker sells more real estate than anyone in the country. Now, realistically she may not actually sell more properties, but it’s undisputed that she is #1 in the U.S. in terms of the value of all properties sold. Estimates are that she’s sold about $7 billion of real estate since she began her career twenty years ago.

In an interview with The Observer a couple of years ago, when asked about the secret to her success, she’s quoted as saying, “I think it’s mostly that I truly just work so much more. You know, most people in real estate don’t work; it’s not a job of workers.”

Some people might consider that an incredibly arrogant statement, but frankly, I suspect that there’s some truth in what she said. How many times have you heard of friends or distant acquaintances who got themselves real estate licenses in order to make money off the housing bubble? I’ve met part-time real estate agents in attendance at writers’ conferences; holding garage sales; hanging around the coffee shop. Most had gotten a license simply because they thought there was money to be made. They didn’t realize the enormous amount of real, actual work that goes into those big, moneymaking deals.

Lenz admits to sleeping very little and seeing her children even less. She juggles anywhere from one to twelve Blackberrys and runs 10 miles a day in Central Park just to maintain her high-energy career and life. I wouldn’t necessarily hold her up as a prime example (I need my eight hours, preferably nine; I turn off my one smartphone at night; and I’d like to see my [future] kids more often than five minutes a week), but she hit the nail right on the head about what success demands from most people: lots of hard, dirty work.

I sucked at selling Mary Kay because I had a full-time job and just didn’t have the energy or inclination to really pound the pavement looking for clients. I disliked asking friends to host in-home facial parties, which are critical to selling MK. I didn’t have the nerve to approach total strangers (which I’d seen one successful MK rep do in a TV documentary about salespeople) and start my spiel. In other words, I just didn’t work it.

Lenz makes millions of dollars a year because she’s willing to do hit the road, talk to strangers, even eat several dinners and lunches a day to be available to her clients. Most real estate salespeople I know operate like I did when I sold Mary Kay — I waited for people to come to me. While I was unfailingly nice to those few customers I did have, I rarely took the initiative.

My Avon rep, simply put, isn’t a worker. She epitomizes the fallacy of the Avon (or Mary Kay, Tupperware, etc.) business plan, that it can be something you do “in your free time.” Clients understand in theory the idea of “God first, then family…” but in reality, when we want our products, we don’t want to have to hunt you down and then feel as if you’ll only respond to my needs when it’s convenient to you. That’s how my Avon rep made me feel, and that’s why I’m dropping her. When I return to Dallas, I’ll be on the hunt for another Avon rep, one who doesn’t disappear for weeks on end and who considers it a privilege to earn my business.

That’s how I like to think I operate with my own small biz. I haven’t always been the best vendor — I may the only freelance writer alive who will admit that she has missed a couple of deadlines in the distant past — but I’ve learned from my mistakes. I work very, very hard. I’m constantly trying to think of new ways to make work easier for my clients. It hasn’t yet translated to million-dollar success, but I’m confident that my business will continue to grow, even with the current economic crisis.

I can’t say the same for my erstwhile Avon rep, though.

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