By Donnabeth Leffler

BUY LOCAL: A 2-Way Street?

By Donnabeth Leffler Posted May 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

 I really believe in trying to spend my money locally.  I don’t always do so but I really do try.  And this is true not only for goods, but services as well.  I look at it as sort of part of a public service that benefits all if we help each other.

The benefit accrues to us with more money for schools and government services and the bettering of those keeps home values as high as possible.

Simply said, I feel it is my obligation (and frequently my delight) to support local businesses.  But I had an experience recently that made me wonder if a local business feels any obligation to support its customers.

It started while I was reading my colleague Jan Bolick’s “Good Business” post on UNC turning around a bad situation to make things right.  I was reading it while waiting for a service call.  You guessed right.  I could have read it several more times and with all compliments to Jan, I did have other things to do that day. 

Not only did no one from the business show up, no one called, texted or emailed.  A returned call the next morning to my after-hours voicemails informed me the service folks were at an emergency call and didn’t have my number in their truck.  They did have a name and address, I pointed out.  I think we all know enough about technology that if someone wanted to get a message to a customer, it could probably be done.

Ok, let’s reschedule.  That was for 3 days after the missed appointment.  I had understood a 2-hour window and, when that was long gone, I again phoned the business.  The owner told me it was a 4-hour window (which wasn’t over yet).  Clearly there was a misunderstanding here.  And it could have been on either side but here is when things turned ugly.

Rather than give you a play-by-play, let me jump to the part where the business owner screamed at me.  Yes, raised his voice, yelled, at a repeat, paying customer.  No one is ever blameless when things get to this point.  The screamer business owner insisted I was “harassing” him about the lack of communication.  Was I?  Harassment is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps, but I thought I was explaining that changing or missing or being late for an appointment is just fine IF there is communication about it.  What seemed to him to be “harassment” was my attempt to show that I was flexible about the appointment(s) but, please, let just me know.

The screamer business owner also asserted that I was trying to force his business into a model it couldn’t manage; that there was no way to give an accurate appointment time even on the same day.  Again, I suggested communication. 

 While acknowledging there’s little way to know how long any one service call will take, I later wondered why I hadn’t encountered this problem with any number of other unrelated service providers over the years.  The plumber doesn’t know what he/she will find, nor does the HVAC repair crew.  Why is this service provider insistent that I’m asking for the impossible?

That last question is really an aside because, truly, I do understand that life happens and all can’t be on schedule (unless Mussolini is directing train traffic again).  What matters out of this story is that communication would have kept this customer happy and probably kept the screaming at bay.

At the end of the conversation, I asked for an apology for the screaming.  I was told it was my fault because of the aforementioned harassment.  I replied – in a clearly even tone with a low voice – that while we might disagree about customer service and communication, we certainly could agree that it is not appropriate to yell at a customer.  I pointed out (with no disagreement from the other party) that I had not once raised my voice, that I had in no way made this a personal attack and that I had even opened the conversation with a friendly reminder to feel free to use my first name.  In other words, this episode did not have to happen.  It was then I got what I can describe only as a grudging (though that is subjective) “I’m sorry I raised my voice.”

Later, the owner had someone else call me to confirm the imminent arrival of the service person.

So, as cathartic as this has been to share with you, I now return to the beginning:  If I feel an obligation to try to support local businesses, does a local business have any obligation to do well by its local customers?

Business owners, customers, please tell me what you think?  Is BUY LOCAL a 2-way street?  Please comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com

 P.S.  Had to run just now- the cable company was calling to say the technician was running late.

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