I once had an unforgettable retail encounter at the Gateway Computers store in San Diego. It was the year 2000 and Gateway was king when it came to PCs. Remember them, the brand with the black and white spotted cow logo? You know you do! They were as ubiquitous and visible in their peak as the once mighty AOL, who so kindly adorned every coffee table in the USA with enough free trial CD-ROMs to provide complete coaster collections for the bulk of the population.
The point is, I had broken my PC Card modem (PCMCIA back in the day), and while there were already options to buy and replace products with merchants online, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way: I was going to go to the actual store.
Thus one fateful Saturday saw me, broken PC Card modem in hand, pay a visit to the local Gateway Computer shop to buy a replacement. Simple enough, right? I was even aware that Gateway would probably charge more than other places, but since they were close by, kitschy, and cool, I figured it was worth it. I actually thought buying a modem from them would reinforce their image and leave me wanting to buy a Gateway laptop down the line.
Upon entering the store, I could clearly see they stocked and sold the exact item I needed: the laptop modem card. The staff (who for the record were very professional and very nice) engaged me, asking how they could be of service. I told them what I wanted to buy and they paused, then asked me if the modem was for an existing Gateway laptop, or for one I had on order.
Figuring they were just using a sales technique to prop up Gateway products, I politely explained that I didn’t own a Gateway laptop, nor did I have one on order. Without a moment’s hesitation, the well-spoken staffers informed me thatcompany policy prohibited the sale of peripherals they sold *in their stores* for use with non-Gateway products.
Visa in hand, ready to pay the stiff retail markup for this add-on, I was literally told I couldn’t buy the laptop modem card. (This was particularly annoying since Gateway wouldn’t even have to provide support after the sale due to disclaimers in-store regarding 3rd party products). No ifs ands or buts, and no one even suggested alternative stores where I could get what I needed.
But wait! There’s more! The uber helpful store helpers then shared that they’d happily sell me a PC Card if/when I bought or could document existing ownership of a Gateway laptop. (Right, because by now I was oozing brand loyalty for them).
Then … wait for it … they let me know that as a non-Gateway customer, I was allowed to buy their miniature stuffed cow mascot, which “could be given as a gift.”
In the 15 or so years since, as both a consumer and manager, I was directly involved in the purchase of or approval to purchase for staff, dozens of laptops. You probably know where this is going. Guess how many Gateway laptops I purchased or approved (ever)? Yep – zero. In some instances, buying from them years later would have even saved me or my teams I worked with a few bucks. It didn’t matter. Inflexibility lost them a customer for life.
My own personal passion for the digital universe has driven my career – whether that involved buying and selling over a billion click-throughs, managing digital display media sales, SEM campaign management, digital content licensing or where I am now, managing our kickass eCommerce tool at OpiaTalk for accelerated sales growth. The point is, whether selling people-backed products or services, the constant has been that client experience needs to be exceptional, period.
Even if you can’t satisfy every desire stated by your clients, I’ve observed that they can and will stick by you if a) your product or service creates measurable value (real ROI), and b: you treat them well, which means meeting their actual needs, whether or not that involves you.
When I sold ad space, clients needed new staff, hosting, language services, application development and related services all the time. I made it my business to understand the service provider ecosystem behind the digital universe. If I couldn’t provide the solution, I could at least point a client, vendor, partner or lead in the right direction. I always tried to find someone who could help – and I certainly didn’t penalize people for not using our ‘products.’ The most important thing was whether customers (or potential customers) were getting what theyactually needed.
Today, I manage digital operations at OpiaTalk. My colleagues and I have the humble pleasure of overseeing every facet of account care inside and out for some of the largest and most successful eCommerce companies and institutions around the globe. These clients and aggregators use our widget to drive sales growth online from the organic traffic they already have.
Thank you, Gateway, for your unforgettably bad customer experience; it has informed my view of customer relations ever since. Which is:
Treat clients better than you wish to be treated. Exceed expectations. Get in their heads and their industry, to understand what they truly need. Then help them get it. If you help with that, your clients will be happier, spend more, and retain, aka stay with you longer, no matter what you sell in the marketplace.
Above all, never offer them a stuffed spotted cow when what they really need is a solution.