For Want of a Nail (an episode in customer service)

You may be familiar with this old proverb

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost

                For want of a shoe, the horse was lost

                For want of a horse, the knight was lost

                For want of a knight, the kingdom was lost

Maybe another way to put this would be, little things can mean a lot. Here’s my case in point for today. In my area, the big box hardware companies have invaded with a vengeance. There are five Home Depot stores within 10 miles of my house. There are also three Lowe’s units. One HD and Lowe’s are about three blocks apart and there is a big building going up between them that is going to be another big regional chain (Menards). It’s hardware city in that stretch of road.

Still, I’ve been willing to drive even a couple miles further to go to what I would call a “mom and pop” hardware store. My preference for this has been twofold.

First, I worked in just such a store for some of my college years. It was a place where you didn’t really sell products, you sold solutions. People came there not really knowing what they wanted, just knowing what was wrong or what didn’t work. It was our job to know what they needed to fix the problem, and to explain to them how to do it (or even, in some cases, to drop by after work and fix it for them).

Second, I like the idea of “buying local” and doing business with smaller businesses. As a small business owner myself, I like to think that others work like I do, trying to give the best personal service possible, being available at odd hours, taking time to really get the right job done and not just relying on volume sales of mediocrity to make money.

In any event, I was in the local hardware store a couple of days ago, buying a few odds and ends (hardware stores and office supply stores are particularly good for that), and here is what happened. My total bill came to $12.01 and I handed the cashier a $20. Seeing her reach into the change compartments of her cash register I said somewhat facetiously (I thought) “Oh, sorry I don’t have any change, but I could go out to my car to get that penny. I’d rather do that than leave with a pocketful of change.”

To my surprise, she said “O.K., I’ll wait.” Seriously. Being a person of my word, I left the store, went to my car in the parking lot (it wasn’t THAT far), got a penny from the console, brought it back in and completed the transaction. Then I left the store for the very last time.

That’s right, I will never go back in that store again. The one cent that that cashier apparently felt that she couldn’t just write off may be the most expensive penny that passed through their hands in the past few months or even years. When you hear about businesses (like Nordstrom’s) whose employees are authorized to take back any item and give a refund, even things that weren’t bought at their store, or businesses like the Ritz-Carlton, whose employees are individually authorized to spend up to $2,000 to make a customer happy, to think that there is a business that wouldn’t just forgive a penny seems crazy. I have been in checkout lines where I saw the clerk reach into a pocket or purse and put their own penny in, obviously to keep the drawer balanced.

The thing is, it really isn’t about the penny, it’s about the mindset. My conclusion is that this particular “mom and pop” business does not have a customer service mindset, or at the very least that they don’t value customer service enough to infuse that value in every employee.

So, now the store has lost all of my future business. They have also lost the future business of anyone I may have sent their way in the future, like I have so done in the past. I can’t really recommend a place I won’t shop at to others – right? Who knows how much all of this potential business is worth? I know it is way more than a penny. In fact, they are already in the hole. Even at minimum wage, I figure I spent about 20 cents worth of that clerk’s time via the delay while I fetched that penny from my car.

I’m sure some people will feel that I have overreacted, but seriously I can buy anything that store sells – and a whole lot more – at any of the big box stores. Usually for less money too (I saw one item on the local shelves for $5.99 and it sells at Home Depot for $2.39). If one of the good reasons, maybe the main one, for shopping with a small “s” is the feeling that you will get treated more personally, even like family, I have been disabused of that notion in this instance by this event. Enjoy the penny!