Brad Shreve, Owner of Larry’s Music Center, told us a funny story recently. He was having a problem with one of the boxes provided by his satellite TV service, which he’d had for 10 years, so he called the 800 number. After explaining to the company that one of his set-top boxes had died, he asked for a new one. They said he’d have to pay for it, to which he responded that they were currently offering free ones with multiple-room installation to new customers. They reiterated that he’d have to pay to replace his, and that the deal he mentioned was only for new customers. So, he opted instead to cancel his service. To add insult to injury, after cancelling his service, the company rep told him just to throw the boxes away. About a month later, he started getting offers in the mail for an all-new free system with free installation if he’d sign back up. These offers were from the same company.

Stories like Brad’s aren’t uncommon. So many of our experiences as consumers involve dealing with part-time employees at big-box retail stores, phone support from cell phone and cable companies, or online retailers. When was the last time you had a positive experience obtaining a resolution to an issue you had with a cell phone or cable company? I know it’s never happened to me. In the aforementioned situation, the company could very easily have saved a customer relationship—not to mention the money spent on marketing to new customers—by offering free installations and equipment. Instead, these large companies treat their current customers like second-class citizens, choosing instead to put the needs of new customers first.

These far-too-common circumstances, accumulated over the last few decades, have left long-term customers without a home, so to speak. Retailers start off with customers who take lessons as children, or who buy their first guitar from our stores, but the relationship has to progress to a critical point, where a personal rapport is built up over time. Otherwise, the customer will seek other purchasing avenues. It doesn’t even take repeated bad service to cause this: it can be a single instance. In the Internet age, our customers are already aware of the cheapest price for which they can purchase, say, an effects pedal. If our prices are competitive—if we hope to stay in business, they’d better be—the only other factor that can drive customers away is a bad experience.

We all know—through long years of experience and our own personal lives—that people can be completely unreasonable, and we are all aware of that age-old retail phrase: “the customer is always right.” Even if our stores are firing on all other cylinders, we still have to deal with the high expectations of customers who aren’t willing to pay more than the cheapest online price they can find. Because we often focus on the economics of customer relations, and how best to deal with difficulties that arise for a variety of reasons, it’s easy to become a little jaded. It’s tempting to believe we no longer have to go the extra mile when dealing with a customer who wants more than we are readily prepared to give, who’s trying to circumvent our store rules and policies, or who harbors expectations that we deem unreasonable.

When navigating the complexity of customer relations, it’s easy to forget that, when dealing with the public, we’re no longer individual people but, instead, part of a collective dedicated to serving the needs of others. But, yet, it’s against human nature to abnegate our own needs, particularly in an age in which people are—or, at least, often seem to be—more self-serving than at any other time in history. The simple truth is, in their own minds, everyone believes they are special. We encounter it every day, and it’s most difficult to navigate when we are certain the customer is wrong, when he or she is trying to get around a store policy, or when his or her product knowledge is just completely backwards.

In these situations, it’s important to remember that our customers are people, too. When a customer has a problem, he or she feels pressure to resolve it. No matter how badly customers might approach us, it’s important to understand their perspective and solve their problems as best we can. Sometimes, that can be a real challenge. At times, when our most sincere efforts do nothing to abate the ire of an angered customer, the best thing we can do is ask that person what he or she requires of us. Sometimes, what is required of us is—pride be damned—to give in to someone who is completely and utterly wrong. Sometimes, store policies must be put aside and, sometimes, we must simply take a hit, regardless of how unreasonable the expectations of the customer might be. And, yes, it can be difficult to do…and it’s difficult to know when to do it.

I’ll be the first to admit that, at times, I have failed to uphold this concept. It’s one I have long struggled with, and I probably always will. In order to remove my own ego from the situation, whenever I feel as though I may be wrong, I ask other staff members, including Brad, to weigh in on the situation. Brad always says one of the most difficult lessons to learn in MI retail is how to subjugate your ego and be humble in the eyes of your customers. As human beings, we instinctually seek to serve ourselves. So, paramount to our ability to survive is remembering that our customers come into our store to fill a need, and that our job is to meet that need. Sometimes, these interactions leave a lot to be desired, as human interactions go, but we must remember that the service industry exists to serve the needs of others.

We must be able to put aside our own egos and give ourselves to each person anew, without regard to how our day is going, customer history or how much profit we’re making on a sale. It’s much easier said than done, I know, but the alternative is to become part of the problem with modern retail, as opposed to aspiring to become a beacon of good service in a growing sea of bad retail experiences. All of us have multiple opportunities to develop customer loyalty and personal relationships. It’s important to remember that, once in a while, in order to distinguish ourselves from big-box retailers and corporate online stores, we are required to lose a few small battles so that we may keep our customers and stay in business. And, as we approach a difficult customer, that is the reward for which we must strive.

What methods do you use to handle difficult situations? How do you distinguish your store in a customer’s mind? Write to me at

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