Gabriel O’Brien (left) and Irish guitar builder Chris Larkin.

I recently returned from my honeymoon in Ireland, where people are unfailingly polite. In every pub, B&B and store, I met people who were incredibly helpful and friendly. Of course, I had to visit at least one independent music store—Musicmaker, in Dublin—where I encountered a polite and welcoming staff. I talked to them about dealer requirements and Irish-made guitars, as well as how they struggle with some of the same things American retailers do: namely, ever-growing stocking requirements and buy-ins from manufacturers.

One of the highlights of my trip was meeting Chris Larkin, a builder of fine custom guitars on the Dingle Peninsula. His workshop is behind his home; that meant I had to pull up to a house belonging to people who had never met me and knock on their door. Chris and his wife invited my wife and me in; he spent two hours walking me through his shop and his building process, as well as showing me guitars. He even put a photo of us in his monthly newsletter. This welcoming attitude was a constant throughout our trip, and it made me think about ways to incorporate more of this spirit of politeness into our industry…especially when faced with an increasingly entitled customer base.

Many dealers I hear from complain that pushy customers are a daily source of frustration for indie retailers; what’s often more vexing is trying to find the best path to deal with their sometimes seemingly outlandish demands. I’ve written about why I believe independent retailers must do a better job competing for sales, but I find many retailers are still struggling with this concept. One retailer wrote, “How do you decide what customers are worth setting aside our pride for?” My answer: all of them.

I, too, have struggled with accepting certain customers’ lack of loyalty and their self-serving nature. It’s easy to become swept up in the onslaught of daily price matching and the lack of loyalty shown by customers we’ve served faithfully in the past. It’s easy to allow these situations to feel like they’re a personal attack and to be offended. I have a particular customer who is a prime example. He will buy only if he feels he’s getting things below dealer cost, and he shows no loyalty based on sweet deals we’ve previously given him. I put a high price on civility and loyalty in my personal life. The difficult task is learning to separate the standards according to which I maintain my personal relationships and those according to which I interact with customers.

As ever, I turned to my mentor and friend, Brad Shreve. (I know…talking to Brad is a recurring theme in my columns. Brad says I make him sound like a Svengali…my personal Wilson from “Home Improvement” or Mr. Feeney from “Boy Meets World.” But it’s important to have close relationships with mentors who help us question what we’re doing, without judging us for our shortcomings.) Brad encouraged me to remove my ego, and he challenged me to learn to treat my difficult customer as though he was the most important person in the world. It’s difficult to swallow my pride. In fact, I’m terrible at it. However, I began spending time talking to the aforementioned customer, asking about his life and family, his church band and his gear choices, and I tried to treat him with as much politeness as I could muster. Over time, it got easier, and he began to approach me in a more positive way, even beginning to relax his hard bargaining techniques. I realized that, if I could find a way to like my least favorite customer, I could set my ego aside and like anyone.

I would much prefer to deal only with reasonable customers who are polite and well intentioned…who respect the fact that a small, independent store operates differently from a private-equity-owned big-box chain or an Internet retailer. Unfortunately, those customers are rarer and rarer and, as I have learned, my personal feelings don’t really matter at the store. Yes, some people are going to bully us on price. But they are simply trying to give us a little less money than we’d like them to give us. And, if they have money, then they are our customers.

Maybe those sales don’t provide as much margin as we would like, but it’s foolish to turn away profit out of pride. It’s not important that I feel as though every customer treated me with the utmost consideration; it is important, however, that I stay in business. When looking at customer interactions from this perspective, we can see that the only clear path to success is to eliminate our personal feelings and focus on the customer service we love to tout as our justification for charging more than big-box stores and Internet retailers do.

In America, people tell their kids from birth, “You can be anything you want to be.” The truth is, you can’t. Maybe you’re not smart enough to be a neurosurgeon or you’re not tall enough to be a basketball star. Nevertheless, we all want to believe and feel that we’re special. The next time a customer is being totally ridiculous, remember that, at the poker table of retail, some people may be your friends and some may not be…but they’re all holding money. And, if you play wisely, it can become your money. If we’re willing to put aside our pride and choose—rather than pushing back when we feel slighted—to exercise more humility, we might be able to convert 10 of those hard-to-please customers per month to additional sales at a smaller margin. We might even be able to develop at least a certain degree of loyalty from them. Our bottom line will then ultimately benefit from extra sales, extra band instrument rentals or signing up additional students for lessons.

How do you maintain politeness in the face of customer pushiness? Is it more important for you to make a sale or to feel like a customer treated you fairly?

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