one step ahead of the shoe shine

As a professional who has worked in several highly direct client-driven set of industries, the words ‘client satisfaction’ are oft used to measure success. But to what lengths should an individual or a company go to keep the customer satisfied? No answers for now, just a few words of wisdom….

The old saying that the “customer is always right” really doesn’t provide much guidance on client satisfaction. And actually it does the customer a disservice. Much of the reason why the customer is purchasing (or potentially purchasing) a service or product from you, it is because they don’t have the skill set to complete it or create it themselves. Instead, I would propose that the motto should be the “customer may not always be right, but they always have the power.” It has helped lend me a new perspective on client interactions.

Yet, even with this “enlightened” frame of mind, customers will still go off the reservation and create headaches. So I offer another help to the situation and keep you focused on your task at hand:

It’s the same old story
Everyhwere I go,
I get slandered,
I hear words I never heard
In the Bible
And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine ((There is no definitive interpretation of ‘shoe shine.’ I always that it akin to what a baseball coach does to an umpire when he doesn’t like a call: give him a ‘shoe shine’ by kicking dirt at the umpire.))
Two steps away from the county line
Just trying to keep my customers satisfied….. satisfied.

Nothing like a little folk music from Paul Simon to keep a smile on one’s face in even the most difficult of client situations. And the most important lyric puts it into perspective: you only have to be “one step” ahead,  not solve all of the client issues at once.( And, yes, I have been caught humming the tune to the song in the middle of one of these situations. )

how high should I jump?

After a recent experience at a large home improvement store, I began to wonder, given that I’m in the professional services industry, should I be a more “enlightened” consumer than others? Shouldn’t I understand that a services business is a difficult business to be in and I should be a better customer? And yet, I still find myself just as frustrated as anyone else would be when I can’t accomplish what I wanted to.

A short digression to illustrate…

I purchased a cordless drill about a year ago and after light use, the rechargeable batteries were no longer charging, rendering the drill completely useless. So, I checked the manufacturer’s website for warranty information: lifetime warranty on the mechanical components and three years on batteries. Simple then, find where to send the old batteries, get new ones. Called the manufacturer and the person who answered said they contract with a local home improvement store to do their service. I could find a service center either in their Manhattan or Queens location.

Perfect. Hopped the subway, walked into the manhattan store. Asked the folks in power tools where to go. They said rental desk. The rental desk said professional services. Professional services said customer service.  I explained that I had been sent there by the manufacturer. They got annoyed, were none too polite and said, we don’t have a service center at this location, go to the Queens store. You can see where this is going…

And I have been on their side of the service counter before as a consultant delivering on a project or similar. I should have known how these situations happen. The customer did everything  right; gathered information on what was supposed to happen. Followed the directions given. The person at each stage did their best in answering the question presented to them. But in the end, there was misinformation at each part of the process and the customer became increasingly frustrated. And by the time the last interaction happened, the person who was really supposed to be able to handle the question got a tired and grumpy customer. So it is no surprise that the reaction to the customer was terse, indignant and completely not helpful.


I should be a more patient as a customer. I should be more patient when I’m in the customer service role. But it’s hard to remember that in the moment. Instead, the reaction on both sides have in their mind… they want me to do what? No way, no sir.

I’ve witnessed customers in stores asking (and demanding) unreasonable requests of sales people, waiters and store managers. I see those same people be dismissive of customers. Have we just been trained that it is going to be an adversarial situation? And therefore our flight/fight response kicks in as if we were our ancestral hunters defending our kin against a predator?

A day later I found myself in the Queens store and at the customer service desk. With the salesperson explaining that they don’t have a repair center either. Still exacerbated. But instead of an indignant response, the customer service person was overly nice, listened and said, “let me see if I can find someone to help.” And in the moment I knew that there wasn’t really anything he could do. He couldn’t repair the drill. He couldn’t figure out why the manufacturer and others had sent me to his store.

The customer may not always be right. The customer may not always have the power. And the person in customer service need not jump at every demand of the customer in order to make sure that the interaction is a positive one.