Friday, February 02, 2007

Guest Writer

The E-mail of the Week Award goes to Scott, who identifies with the guy at Pizzetta who refused to serve me.
From: Scott
Subject: More Bad Businesses
Date: January 31, 2007 9:35:18 AM PST

You expressed amazement at my report of a quirky building supply store run rather like my own business and the contrary little pizza parlor you patronize when they permit you to do so. In my comment on the pizza joint incident, the moral was something to the effect that it wasn’t so important that any particular customer be disappointed so long as, from time to time, some customers are disappointed.

But really the main point is to be clear about who is to be the beneficiary of one’s own business. I do not subscribe to either the exultation of customer satisfaction or to the notion that the principal objective of business is to make a bunch of money. Either or both of those things are fine, but should one risk going broke (or as likely, going crazy), to keep customers happy no matter what? Should one abandon all else (even, god forbid, customer satisfaction, not to mention health & socializing), to the single-minded pursuit of lucre? I think not –not me anyway.

Basically I think of owning a business as a way to make a living that enables me to do a lot of other things I like to do instead of, or think are more important than working –while I’m at work! I say: keep customers happy enough to keep ‘em as customers, but don’t be afraid to discipline ‘em every once in a while if they start overreaching, threatening to become an inconvenience. By the same token, you have to make enough money in business or you won’t have any business (or paycheck), at all, but please- there’s more to life, right?

…The Lumberman store, on Folsom at about 15th or 14th in the Mission, is evidently run by a man after my own heart, at least from the customer relations standpoint. It was impossible for me to conceal my admiration for this gentleman even as (or especially because?) he: a) frustrated me; b) refused to be swayed by arguments that were both eminently logical and financially remunerative; and c) metaphorically (and pret’ near literally), spat in the general direction of that “the customer is always right” crap.

The deal was this: My friend & biz partner Ksiel had purchased a cabinet for me on close-out that was a really good deal, and was helping me to install it. Actually, given my disability, it was me helping him to install it; anyway…

For the installation we needed two pieces of pre-primed 1”X 6” about 42” long. So we headed to the Lumberman store with the expectation of purchasing an eight footer which we would take home and cut to length. In the event, all that was to be had from stock that day was a twelve footer, which we were perfectly content to purchase, notwithstanding the surplus length, excepting that it was rather too long to be easily carried home in the car. So Ksiel & I were wondering aloud about getting it cut in half (one cut), or better yet, just getting two pieces cut to our desired length (two cuts). A passing and apparently regular customer overheard us and said “Ya’ wanna cut? Go see that guy over there,” indicating a fellow who at that moment was methodically sweeping a small quantity of dirt into a dust pan. He, overhearing the exchange, appeared to be amenable to helping us out, but as he put away broom and dust pan and gestured for us to follow him to the cut-off saw, the owner accosted us.

I will neither offend sensibilities nor disrespect the gentleman by attempting to phonetically replicate his end of the conversation. He is Asian, and while his English is immeasurably better than anything I could possibly offer in his native tongue, it’s probably safe to say that English wasn’t his first language. In any event, it quickly became apparent that we were not communicating with one another, the language barrier only adding an additional dimension to the unreality of “not understanding.”

After establishing that we needed merely an eight foot 1” X 6”, and not the twelve footer we were carrying around, the owner said his guy would cut it down to eight feet if there weren’t any eight footers in stock, and he’d charge us only for the eight footer. We said that was great, but as long as the guy was having to cut the board anyway, could he maybe just go ahead and cut us two 42” pieces while he was at it?

“No- no custom cuts.”
“We’ll pay you for the extra cut.”
“No- no custom cuts.”
“Well, what if we buy the whole twelve footer? Can he cut us the two pieces we want, and you keep the extra piece of plank?”
“No- no custom cuts.”
“What if we buy the twelve footer and pay you for the extra cut?
“How ‘bout we buy the twelve footer, and pay you for the extra cut, and leave you the extra four-odd feet of board?”
“No- I tell you: no custom cuts!”
“Why not? We’re happy to pay you!”
“No! Because then everybody wants custom cuts. Can’t make any money like that.”
"But you would make money if you charged for it! –and we’ll pay! You said you want to make money- here’s money to be made! Besides- we’re customers! Don’t you want to make your customers happy?”
“No! Then everybody want. Make no money like that”
“Look- we’ll pay, and we promise not to tell anyone. How ‘bout it?”
“No- no custom cuts. I cut that down to eight feet for you, and that’s it.”
“But…” And so on.

Truthfully, in the time we spent arguing with the owner, the saw man, who seemed willing enough and was just stranding around while this was going on, could have cut half a truck load of one-by-sixes, but there was no getting around it; the guy simply wasn’t going to allow it, and for absolutely no other reason than that was his policy and he wasn’t going to change it, and that was that.

At some point I’m beginning to see a glimmer of myself in this man, turn to Ksiel and say admiringly “See? He’s just like me! A policy is a policy and screw the customers. It’s his business and he doesn’t care, even if he can get paid, to do anything he doesn’t wanna do. ‘Cause he knows- soon as you satisfy one guy, the next one wants the same treatment, only it’ll be something different, and then there’s another somebody else with their something different and soon there’s just no end to it. I love this guy! He’s so me!”

But now the owner’s starting to get a little pissed off, which is perfectly understandable to me, and asks “You want eight foot board or not?” Yeah, okay, we want the eight footer, so he turns to the saw man and tells him to take our board and cut it down to eight feet.

By now I’m loving the guy so much that I just have to keep arguing with him, even after he turns around and passes himself through the little trap door to the space behind the counter and rings us up. “Why won’t you do this? What difference does it make?” I demand. “We’re gonna pay you! For the whole stinkin’ twelve feet and the extra cut too! You can re-sell the crummy four footer we’re leavin’ ya to somebody else! What’s the matter with you anyway?”

Ksiel, who cannot believe that he is suddenly in the presence of two such bull-headed people when he had believed me to be the only one such on the planet, tries to get me to leave off. But I’m not having it. “You’re just like me!” I yell at the guy who is retreating into the aisles of shelving behind the counter. “I do this all the time to our customers! You’re just as cranky and disagreeable as me! What’s the matter with you anyway?”

For a brief the moment the guy can’t quite figure out what I’m saying, exactly, and turns on me with the beginning of a nasty expression on his face. But before he can grab that 22 oz. Stanley framing hammer off the pegboard and chuck it at me he kind of gets what I just said and starts laughing. “Take your board and get outta here!”

So there you have it: another business that rates owner satisfaction on a par with customer satisfaction. I will always go there from now on.

On another subject, I found what is possibly a better deal than the Charumba. To wit: producer Folie a Deux’s Ménage a Trois ($7.50/btl @ Costco). Quoting the back label: “A delightful blend based on three varietals- Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet.” Absolutely a delicious wine with luscious zin fruit and a bit of both backbone and mellowness from the cab and merlot. Even comes in a classy, tapered Bordeaux bottle! Wow!. As you guys like zins a lot, I think you’d like this. A steal at the price; I got a case & will do so again. Think I’m going to enter a period of drinking mainly Charumba and this little wine as my dailies. Good drinking at an average cost of six and-a-quarter per bottle. Check it out!

Hope Tom has recovered from the crud. I’m off to visit friends up north to watch (or, often as not, we end up not watching) the Stupid Bowl. Good fun will be had by all.

Best wishes,