I stopped in a well-known quick-service restaurant one afternoon. It was the height of the lunch hour, and needless to say, the restaurant was quite busy.
I was unfortunate enough to stand in line behind two women who waited until the young man behind the counter asked Can I take your order? before trying to figure out which greasy entree they wanted. They proceeded to engage in a friendly joust with the good-natured fellow, who overindulged the ladies at the expense of other customers.
The woman who appeared to be the shift supervisor noticed that the guy at the register was holding things up and threw herself into a couple of transactions to try to move him along.
At one point, the supervisor looked at me and said, Youve been waiting for a while, havent you?
To which I replied something to the effect of, yes, a little longer than I expected or was accustomed to. She took my order, filled it and offered it to me at no charge. I protested, but she prevailed. I thought it was a nice gesture.
It wasnt her fault that the customers dillydallied, but she did take responsibility for her employees inability to keep things moving. I walked away with a good feeling about the restaurant, the company and the manager. Had things gone another way, I might have decided to never return. I might even have provided a little bad word-of-mouth advertising for the place.
I used to work in the retail food business, and had every kind of spoiled foodstuff imaginable shoved in my face. Most complaints were legitimate, although annoying, and I usually managed a smile, an apology and a refund.
Some customers pushed a little farther. Every week, one brought back a quart carton with about a spoonful of sour milk at the bottom, or a tub with a little bit of green cottage cheese in it, complaining that it had gone bad. It was several weeks old, judging by the expiration date.
I wondered why, if she kept getting spoiled products at our store, she continued to shop there. Or why she hadnt checked to see if her refrigerator was working properly. The answer was simple: She had figured out a way to get something for nothing.
Some of my co-workers would fume over having to give her or anyone a refund before doing something short of appointing an independent counsel. The thing they were overlooking, though, was that most of these customers came in every week and spent $50 or $100 or more. Extrapolate that over a year and youve got several thousand dollars worth of business from each customer. Put together 10,000 of them shopping every week and you get the picture.
Obviously, you dont want to let your customers take it too far. One of our shoppers figured out that if she bought certain merchandise, used a coupon to reduce the price, then later brought it back and got a refund for full price, she could pocket the difference. A can of this or a jar of that would have gone unnoticed, but this customer decided she was going to make a part-time job out of her coupon scam.
Conveniently, she never had a sales receipt. She lost it or threw it away or the cashier never gave it to her, shed claim. It became obvious that this was a scheme that was more than annoying; it was actually causing harm to the companies that issued the coupons.
Enough of this goes on and we stood the real, although remote, chance of being accused of fraud ourselves. This, we decided, was worth putting a stop to. And we did. We required that she produce a receipt if she wanted future refunds. The scam stopped.
How far should you go to satisfy or earn a customers loyalty? How do you know if theyre assuming that this is part of the relationship or simply ripping you off? Where do you draw the line? When is it time to give up on a customer, to throw away thousands of dollars of business because its just too expensive to handle?
I help business people figure out how to do these things for themselves, but I dont envy those who have to make these kinds of decisions every day. I certainly dont know the answers, but Ill tell you from my experience, a free lunch never hurts. Ray Marano is associate editor of SBN. Reach him at (412) 321-6050 or by e-mail at email@example.com assuming hes not out looking for his next free lunch.