The case of the missing $20 bill – where customer service and brand collide

Mark Busse – No Comments


Brand, customer retention, business development, profit, sustainability—these long-term, big-picture elements of a company can each be built or toppled by day-to-day customer service. Designers can develop a brilliant look for you, marketing strategists can launch brilliant campaigns, and really really smart people can develop fantastically impressive business models, products and service offerings, but if the person on the front line – the person who deals with your customers – drops the ball, he or she can turn a loyal customer into a business-busting, bad-mouthing machine in no time at all. Allow me to illustrate with some stories that I think we can all relate to.

The other day I was at Costco. Eager for my requisite Costco pizza slice, I withdrew $40 from the ATM and lined up at the food court. As I approached the cash register, I put a $20 on the counter and put the other $20 in my wallet. The cashier didn’t seem to notice me. She was busy counting the previous customer’s change. As she scooped up the pile coins and put them into the till, she also scooped up my $20 bill. A moment later, when she asked me for $3 for my order, I explained how she had already taken my money. That’s when she called the supervisor .

Her inclination to report the “incident” made me slightly uncomfortable, but since I was in the right I really just had to stand there and wait to be vindicated by the supervisor. Then I heard the cashier say, “If what the customer is saying is true…”  I quickly interjected, “What I am saying is true.” I’m no thief!

Then the supervisor asked for my Costco ID, “For the record.”

By that point I was frustrated, and a little paranoid about the whole Costco ID thing. Was I going to be black listed? I started to flash back to the last time I had to talk to the police. I sounded so guilty, I hadn’t done anything wrong then either but I might as well have. I even started to doubt my self. Was I going crazy? Did I really give her the $20 bill? I had to check my wallet to make sure there was only one $20 bill in there and not two. Of course there weren’t two. I watched her scoop up the $20. It was right there in her till.

Even though I got my order and finally my change from the $20, I was frustrated.

Had I left right then, I would have been angry and I probably would have complained to anyone who would  listen for the rest of the day. Instead, I decided to change the direction of things. I decided to talk to their manager.

I explained that I’d had a negative interaction with two of the customer service staff. On some level, I sincerely hoped they could learn and grow from our experience, and on another level I really just wanted him to know I was… unhappy with the service I received.

I explained what happened and said that in my opinion the cashier who served me need not have rushed so much, though I understood that it was busy. I said that her comment about “if what the customer is saying is true…” was way out of line and that it made it seem as though Costco’s policy was “the customer is guilty until proven otherwise”. I also suggested it would have made a difference if the supervisor had explained in detail why he wanted my Costco ID.

The manager was great. He listened. He didn’t make any excuses. He thanked me for the feedback and genuinely apologized . As a result, he sent me on my way feeling I had been heard and feeling a lot less frustrated.

The moral of the story is that you can spend years building a strong brand for your company and it can be demolished within seconds if your customers experience bad service from your staff. On the flip side, an apologetic and authentic manager can do wonders to restore brand loyalty (if a customer gives them the opportunity).

Ultimately, it is up to you to hire well and to train your staff to provide the kind of customer service your brand, your business and your customers demand. Inspire your team to want to deliver good customer service (even if they are having a bad day) and manage people to ensure that they deliver the required customer experience consistently.

Train your managers to listen, to be genuine about the customer’s concerns and to always work to relieve their concerns. Managers should NEVER make excuses for their staff. Frustrated customers don’t want or need to hear excuses and ultimately managers should know that they are there to defend and maintain the brand, not the poorly performing customer service staff.

Often, people don’t need to hear much more than “I’m sorry that you had that experience, we will rectify that situation immediately, and thank you for taking the time to give us the feedback. It takes commitment on your part and we appreciate that”.  The old phrase ‘A little goes a long way’ is very appropriate when it comes to customer service, and brand integrity.

Of course, if the situation deserves it, managers could offer a gift card or some other type of compensation to a customer who has received poor service. It is amazing how quickly a small gesture can rebuild a customer’s loyalty. And if you are able to obtain the customer’s address, send them a follow up letter thanking them for their time, and update them on any changes you have made based on their feedback.

Customer service has never been more important than in today’s tight economic times. Businesses are fighting to keep customers loyal. At the same time, the amount of people looking for jobs has increased substantially. Teens are competing with 50-somethings, so take the opportunity to hire the people who are going to best represent your brand to your customers. Manage them well. And train your managers to respond appropriately when your customers tell them what they think you are doing right, and what you could do better.

Now, allow me to tell you a little story about exceptional customer service to highlight the role you can play as a customer to build better businesses. A few months ago I was shopping at Save On Foods and was served by a delightful lady who was probably in her early 50s. I had my bicycle with me and she enquired into my day and my ride. It was not the usual generic “how are you” that we tend to revert to in Northern America. It was a genuine conversation. We joked, laughed and connected. It was refreshing.

My personal commitment is to  ‘report’ great customer service to managers too. I enjoy seeing the manager’s face when they realize that you are there about a compliment, not a complaint.

In this case, I happily reported that I had received great service from Maggie and that the customer service initiatives they have in place for their staff were clearly working well. As customers, one of the most effective ways that we can demand excellent service, and get more of what we want from a company, is to praise them when they get things right.

As business people and as customers, I believe it is time we take a stand and demand better customer service. Let’s report poor service and let’s celebrate  great service. Let’s tell our friends and colleagues what we are doing and encourage them to do the same. If we want exceptional or even good customer service it is in our hands as customers, as managers, as business owners and as employees to demand this and to be proactive in making it happen.

At the end of the day, customer service is relatively simple, be genuine, be polite, and go beyond the expectation of the customer.

Let’s strive for a community where a $20 bill never disappears again, and where brands everywhere are safe from the destructive forces of disgruntled ex-customers and ex-employees.