Win Customers By Sending Them to A Competing Business

This took place about 13 years ago, before ‘mobile phone’ became ‘mobile device’, before the word “iPhone” was coined, and before people adopted the habit of uploading pictures of their lunch and tweeting trivial thoughts.

It was an overcast day, like many other days, in Seattle. I wanted to call home to Jakarta, and I needed to get a calling card. Lucky for us, just across the intersection from the hotel was some kind of a general store. It was not a big supermarket nor a chain drugstore, but you can find most of your needs in there. In the narrow aisles in the low-ceiling and medium lighted space were stacked snack, soda, food, medicines, beauty and hair care products, magazines, newspapers, and a sundry of other daily necessities. Almost every nook and cranny was filled merchandise.

When I got there, there were customers standing in line in front of a counter. Standing behind the counter was a tall blond young man who, I think, was not older than 19. His slender torso was covered by a white polo shirt, protected by the store’s dark green apron, and his thin, pale complexioned face was framed by a crew cut hair.

When my turn came, he greeted me with the usual store clerk courtesy. “How can I help you?”
“Do you carry calling cards?” I said.
Instead of directly giving me a yes or no answer, he replied with another question.
“To what country do you wish to call?”
I lost my thought for a second at the unexpected response. Why does he need to know the country I want to call? Any calling card can call to any country, right?
“Indonesia,” I finally answered.
“Unfortunately the calling cards that we have charge high rates for calls to Indonesia,” he said, matter of factly. “You can find cards with lower rates in the ‘Blue Moon’ store just a few steps down the street.”

I was taken aback at his reply for two reasons. One, I never met anyone who was willing to promote a better price in another store. For all I know, a salesperson like that will soon earn his termination for sending customers to a competitor. Reason number two, how on earth did he know that the cards in the other store had better rates? Did he have a habit to compare callling card rates?

Seattle is one of the gates from Asia into mainland US. If you take a stroll in Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, you can meet many Southeast Asian men and women, young and old. According to demographic data, in 2010 Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 13.6% of the population of the City of Seattle. That makes them the second largest population by race in the city.

Come to think of it, it was really not a big surprise if someone in Seattle can know so far about making calls to Indonesia.

He then proceeded to give me directions to the ‘Blue Moon’ store. I thanked him, and walked to find the place. It was a bakery owned and run by Chinese proprietors, and they did sell calling cards. I never found out whether the rates were better than the ones sold at the General Store. All I knew was that when I left Seattle, there was still some credit left in the card, even after I used it to make calls half a world away for hours.

The young man taught me valuable lessons when serving customers:

  1. Always think in the customer’s best interest, even when it means directing the customer to another business who can give a better service. That is the price for gaining customer’s trust, and to build long term relationships.
  2. Hoard as much as possible knowledge and information that you know can help you serve customers. It will help you going the extra miles for your customers, and win the  goodwill to return the favor to you.
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