How to Lose a Good Customer

How to Lose a Good Customer

Isn’t it amazing what efforts some companies put in to drive customers away?  They’re usually successful. 

Fear not, this is not just another screed about how I was done wrong.  No, mine has a twist at the end (no fair cheating and reading ahead!) and turns out to be amusing, at least to me.

Unlike most customer service ranters, I’ve actually worked in customer service. It ain’t easy. For fourteen years I handled many of the complaints that came in to the two different motorcycle dealerships I worked for, and some of them were amazing.

Some were people trying to rip off the dealership by deliberately damaging their own motorcycles and claiming the service department did it.  One customer took pictures of a bunch of screws and nuts in the air box – the ones he had put there. There was the customer who got angry because the service department would not verify an insurance claim for hit and run damage – on a motorcycle he himself had crashed in the parking lot on a test ride all by himself.

More often there were customers who simply got things mixed up. A customer was enraged because the service department had no record of the reservation he’d made three weeks before.  Eventually it was discovered that he had indeed made a service reservation – at a competing dealership a few blocks away. A customer was outraged that his front tire had been mounted backwards, (yes, you can do that on motorcycles) until the computer showed that he’d never had a front tire service. Then he remembered the flat and the repair by a shop in Arizona the previous summer.

Occasionally you’d get a person who was just someone who liked to get mad over anything, or someone who seemed a little disconnected.

One customer was screaming at a tech that the tech did not know how to operate a dyno, which had given results he did not like.  The tech was one of the leading experts on this and taught others his skills on occasion.

Some customers simply enjoyed sending hostile e-mails, and really did not want the problem solved at all. One customer e-mailed me a simple question about the cost of having a tire mounted.  I replied that all dealerships sold thousands of products, and shopping around would usually offer a variety of choices.  If the dealer he mentioned was charging a lot less, he could have it done there.   Was followed was a hostile response, which I replied to politely. And then another one. And again. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that responding to him was not working.  I stopped. 

But he didn’t.  The hostile e-mails continued, almost one a day, and I had no idea of what to do.  Eventually the owner heard and asked me about it, and I sent him the file, as I had kept all of the e-mails.  Tada!  I did one smart thing.   When the owner read through the file he called me in and asked me to find out what we needed to do to dump a member of our HOG chapter.  It was a Harley customer, but that is really not important.  Ranting customers are not brand specific.

I replied, “But, but… this guy has purchased five new Harleys from us in the past five years.”

The owner’s eyes narrowed, and I knew I’d offended.   “What’s your point?”

Lesson learned – customers who abuse staff are to be excised.  It turned out, from a reading of the “HOG Bible,” that all members served at the pleasure of the owner, and a simple letter would be enough.   I wrote the letter for the owner, very carefully, and the owner signed it and sent it, and that was it.   Except, of course, that it wasn’t. This fellow had a lot of friends in the HOG chapter, and I got blamed for his expulsion.  There are times when you are simply not going to win,

But sometimes – the customer was right. The dealership had screwed up, and there was no question about it.

What now? When I first entered the business from education, I read a couple of the marketing 101 and marketing for dummies sort of books.  Most of the info seemed pretty obvious (partly because teaching English to teen agers sometimes devolves into customer service with parents who have not been told the complete story by little Jimmy). Can you imagine that happens?  But it seems some companies, and company owners, simply cannot be bothered to look into customer service at all.

What to do when something has gone wrong?  One thing I was taught by a savvy sales manager was to simply ask the customer what could be done to make things right.  The customer ALWAYS came up with a plan that was easier and much cheaper than anything I could come up with.

There was the customer who left his bike for a complete tune-up and mentioned that he would be out of town on business for several weeks, so the job could be done when time allowed.  Very thoughtful of him.  When he eventually returned, the bike could not be found!  The service manager, fighting off that sick feeling of panic, explained that at times bikes were transferred to our warehouse, (which had the chance of actually being true) and that if the customer returned the following Tuesday we would have it.  Also very thoughtful, and I appreciated his taking the time to mention the situation to me, as it seemed highly likely I would be dealing with this sooner rather than later.

A major investigation was launched, and it transpired that an employee had stolen the bike!  He had walked it very carefully out the back, next to the fence, so as to not turn on the security cameras.   His plan was foiled by a technician sneaking out for a cigarette who had triggered the cameras just in time to catch the employee exiting the camera shot to the left.   And now, the bike was evidence in a theft case!  How do you solve this problem?  The sales manager offered the customer an unbelievable deal on a trade-in for a new model, creating a very happy customer and saving the dealership all sorts of time and money.

On another occasion, I was not told what the screw-up was, but the sales manager offered the customer a guest slot on my radio show!  The customer was an MSF instructor, and was thrilled to drive 400 miles down and back to Bellingham to appear on a radio show with a very small audience to talk about motorcycle safety.   All would have been terrific; except that it turned out that the man did not like to talk. This is a severe impediment for a radio show.   Longest hour of my life. 

Here’s a sample.

“So Bob, how could people learn more about your classes?”  Pause.

“They could call the phone number.”   Pause.

“And what would that number be?”

When I got home my wife, who usually listened to the show, said “You were really working hard, weren’t you?”  Yeah.

And on to my recent experience.   I took my lawn mower in for a full tune-up last June, with a company I’d been dealing with for years.  The wait was a couple of weeks, because they were very busy.  When I got the mower home, it had an odd problem. Sometimes it would start, and sometimes not.  Once running, it would occasionally die.  I guessed maybe the gas can had absorbed some water vapor. After a frustrating month, and some new gas,  that was obviously not the problem. Back to the repair folks.

They discovered that the throttle cable had frayed to the point of intermittent function, and had to wait for a new one to arrive. I was surprised that a “full tune-up” did not include examining the throttle cable, but oh well.

Once home from that, the mower started with ease, but now there was a new problem.  The self-propelled feature did not work, although it was just fine when I took it in.  This time I guessed that someone had disconnected that cable and not hooked it up.  I called to report this, and told them I would wait for winter to bring it in to have that fixed.

Over the winter I developed some fun issues with my back, such that I was not able to return the mower until April.  Expected time frame to repair this problem, which had occurred while in their hands?  Two and a half weeks.   OK, I’m beginning to lose patience.

After three weeks, when I was beginning to call every day, came word that the problem was a bad cable (again?), and that the new one had just been delivered, and she would call back in a few minutes.

Guess what happened?    Two points if you go with “Nothing.”

When I called again I was told the cable was on, and now they had discovered that the transmission was locked up.  They would have to see if they had another used one they could swap in.

Fifteen minutes later I called back and told them I would donate the mower to them. The engine was fine, and most of the other pieces were usable.  They agreed to this.

How could I be so generous?  About seven years or so ago I had taken in my previous mower for a check-up.  Once again the wait was long, and repeated calls provided no joy. Finally I called one Friday and said that I would be in on Monday. It my mower was ready I would pay the bill and take the mower.  If it was not ready, I would take the mower elsewhere.  I was asked to wait a minute.

The owner came on the phone and told me she had a Toro she would like to offer me as a trade for mine.  Confused, I said “You mean you don’t know where mine is?”   Turns out my mower had either been stolen, or they had erred and sold it.  All they knew was that it was a Toro mower. She did not ask what model it was, (minimum spec) or how old (ancient), and I was irritated enough not to offer any facts.

When I got there I found that she was offering me a brand new 5hp self-propelled Toro, a gigantic leap upward from mine. I accepted her offer, and had a spot of panic when the yard tech came out to load it in to my Ford Focus.  The new mower was much larger.  What would happen if it did not fit?   But it did.

So the mower I donated to them was one I had never actually paid for.   I have not purchased a lawn mower in over 25 years.

I can probably afford a new mower… and a new repair shop.


David Preston                        Copyright 201

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Fiat 500S and a Honda CR-V. What else would you like to know?
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2 Responses to How to Lose a Good Customer

  1. Patrick says:

    Heheh… And you want to find another repair shop? Seems you have hit the jackpot for lawnmower reincarnation and the alternative universe of customer service…

    In the world of customer service, one is exposed to all forms of human greed, avarice, disrespect and every-other permutation of bad behavior by the folks one serves… Sometimes deservedly so, but the majority of the time the pejorative nature of the interaction is undeserved and disproportional to the situation because folks don’t want to take responsibility for their own insipidness and ineptness….

  2. Don says:

    When you get the new mower, Dave – get a Honda… 🙂

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