Online Retailing vs Brink and Mortar. A follow up.

In a second (odd how few people ever promote that something is the second…), the Ruggist again answers a question that was posed by an anonymous (although we find out part of his name in the signature) reader in a comment on the last post which dealt with Online Retailing.
Here is the background and question:
“Anonymous said…
Hi Michael,
I am also a retailer for the last 37 years, not a purist of only high end design rugs and carpet , but sell the whole range. This is a new reality for us brick and motar stores. We are being used by many but not all rug consumers. The point I am making to the consumer is if you are using us in order to buy on line after, please give us an oportunity to match the deal. I believe in the golden rule treat others as you would want to be treated. I would like to relate a recent incident. As you may do also we sign out our rugs and samples before you buy, this customer took home several pieces than returned them droping them off, to our receptionist that he bought them some where else cheaper, not a thank you or any remorse just straight forward. I got wind of this and decided to call him just before Christmas, I identified my self and told him, I wanted to know why he didn’t even give us a shot at matching the price. He was furious that I had even called him how dare me, and he would never buy from us again, I almost laughed because if he came in again I would not sell him. I don’t liked to be used. He angrly told me we had, had our chance to sell him and we were greedy and our price was a rip off. We didn’t deserve a oportunity, and he was mad that I challenged him. He then slamed the phone in my ear.
Wow! Was I out of line? I am curios your comments…Sam the rug man”
So, do I think Sam was out of line? It depends. Was this a long term customer of Sam’s or was it a first time buyer? Is it retail or trade-only? (I am guessing retail.) Before I answer thought, I’d like to broaden our thoughts on this, so let me recount for you a similar situation I once encountered.
This was likely in 2004 or 2005 and took place at Classic Oriental Rugs, a trade-only showroom located in Cleveland, Ohio. A new to us designer (client or customer if you will) came into the showroom and was first met by the very lovely and ever so polite Mary Ann Barrett. Now as I recall, Mary Ann knew of this designer (which was often the case as Mary Ann has an encyclopedic knowledge of Cleveland families and people) and started chatting with her about her needs. By the time I (as the salesman) was introduced into the situation (I think I had been out on an appointment) several criteria had been established: 1) Urgent need (By a certain not too distant date). and 2) Definite Size (9×12). Then, with my guidance we determined: 3) We offered a suitable, although not “perfect” carpet, that would need to be ordered. The 9×12 was on backorder for about eight (8) to ten (10) weeks which only left about a two (2) week margin of error for her must have by date. We provided her with a quote, stressing the importance of ordering immediately if she wanted to minimize chances of missing the date. She then took the information and went on her way. It should be noted that we would typically conduct a follow up on this visit in five (5) to ten (10) days.
About a week passed and she returned to the showroom, asking first of course if there “Was anything new that she should see?” I politely (if I had had my coffee) told here there was not, and she then acquiesced and ordered the previously discussed rug. A “Special Order Agreement” was drafted and sent via fax (at her request) to her office. The next morning the signed agreement, and deposit via credit card were found waiting for us in the fax machine. The Agreement broadly stated that the designer was ordering a rug, the rug was non-returnable and the deposit was non-refundable. Basic language that attempts to lock the order down. Later that day the rug was ordered with our supplier, and it was of course still on back order, and the delivery, due to the designer’s one week delay was now even tighter. But, I knew the supplier well and trusted their information (which one cannot always do). We provided this information to the client, who said “thank you” and mentioned she was departing for Florida for vacation.
Three (3) days later the phone rings. “Hi, this is Dolly Decorina (not her real name) and I’d like to cancel my order for the rug” she says to the junior salesman, who explains to her that the order is not cancelable (as detailed the agreement). A lively conversation ensues, and she is asked to hold to speak with me, the senior salesman and manager.
Once on the phone she proceeds to tell me she has found the “perfect” rug while in Florida and they have it in stock. She repeats her desire to cancel the order, and I again mention that it is not cancelable. Quoting Ohio business law, she then reminds me that all contracts in Ohio are subject to a three (3) day grace period (which I knew), and that if I didn’t cancel her order and refund her money she would report us. Of course by this point I am fuming! To defuse the situation, I ask her to hold while I pull her order and look over the details. “I may have to call the Owner” I add. I put her on hold. Of course I have no real intention of calling the owner, but it sounds good, and putting her on hold gave me a chance to review her order and to think in a slightly more calm manner.
Now here is the important part! While I had not physically viewed her fax until the morning of say the 4th, it was in fact dated and received by our fax machine on the 3rd. She was now calling us on the 7th. Thus, technically, it was outside of the three (3) day window to rescind a contract. Also, because of who I had ordered the rug from and its backorder status, I knew canceling would not be too much of a concern. I retuned to the phone.
“Okay Dolly, we’ll cancel the order and refund your deposit” I say. “Oh thank you she says. The next time I am looking for a rug I will definitely come to you.” she replies. “Actually” I retort “please don’t bother. We’ve built our business on being a resource for repeat customers who value our relationship. I don’t think we are a good fit.” She replies with stunned silence at first. “Okay, well thank you for canceling the order” she once again says. “You’re welcome, enjoy the rest of your vacation. Good-bye.” I say hanging up the phone.
Quick Analysis of the Situation:
Both of these narratives hinge around customer satisfaction. In the first, the customer is looking for a better price, in the second the customer is looking for a rug better suited to the situation. While in both cases the customer ends up being satisfied, the showroom is left, in the end, without a sale. What was done wrong? What was done right?
In Sam’s case, the mistake was made upon the return of the samples. Assuming he has a retail showroom, then and only then was the moment to ask the customer for more details about where he found the product online for less money. Once the customer leaves after returning the samples from the “free/home trial period” their obligation to the showroom ends. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Sam is fully in the right to question the customer, but not after the fact.
Sam’s customer is also in the wrong for not asking Sam for a better price. He is clearly getting a valuable service from Sam (being able to the see the samples) and he should have given Sam the chance to meet the price. Also, stating that Sam was “greedy and his price was a rip off” does show ignorance on the part of the customer. Sam has retail overhead that has to be paid for somehow.
Sam’s customer also states that “he would never buy from” Sam again. While unknown to us, the important thing to know is: Has that customer purchased before? I am guessing he has not. Retail customers love to use the empty promise of future sales, holding them out as if they were a carrot on a stick.
In my case, one could argue (although I don’t) that telling the customer not to return was not the appropriate business decision, and indeed it may not have been. I could have been, gasp!, wrong. However! Given we had been serving the Cleveland design community for almost ten (10) years, and this was the first time she had come to us, I am pretty certain I wasn’t giving up any real business.
I was also in the right to refund the customer and cancel the order. She didn’t want it, and I’d have spent too much time and effort trying to collect the balance due, et cetera. She was happy (until I told her not to return) and in the end, we were better off for it.
We could also fault Dolly for canceling the order, but then again, she was hesitant on the style of the rug from the beginning. Perhaps a better salesman (better than me at the time) would have suggested that the rug was not suited for her and sent her on her way. I learned that you can’t be everything to everybody from a former colleague when we worked at Classic Oriental Rugs together. I should have remembered that the morning I accepted her order.
The take away message:
In editing this post I realized that so many of us can relate to the basic premise of this scenario, that the number of sharable stories could fill a not so small volume of anecdotes. The number of exact permutations being almost immeasurable. The “correct” resolution to the perceived problem however is not always clear cut (of course) nor is it going to be the same for every showroom (retail or trade) and so, what can we conclude:
While I have not verified this personally, I am to understand that the customer service motto of The Walt Disney Company is: “The customer may not always be right, but they are still the customer.” In both of these examples the customer ended up with what they wanted, but were left with a negative impression of the showroom. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” advises never making a person feel small or inferior to you, even if you are in fact the one in the right. Sam should have just let the situation be since he had not seen the customer when the samples were returned, and I should have refunded the money (which I did) but been gracious and told Dolly I looked forward to seeing her again and better meeting her wants.
In the end, both Sam and I burned a bridge. It is (mostly) clear Sam was fully aware of the bridge he was burning, whereas I on the other hand am not as certain on my decision. Always make sure you are off the bridge and you never want to to go back before you strike the match. By the way, always and never are two words you should always remember to never use.