On the eve of Ontario’s third COVID-related lockdown, I found myself slumping cautiously into a foreign barber chair.
Despite the imminent shutdown of non-essential businesses and a looming stay-at-home order, I was momentarily thrilled. After several dead ends, I had found a real barber willing to trim my shaggy locks between appointments.
It was a small shop carved out of the front room of a historic house. Although it was clean and nicely appointed, no amount of creative decorating could hide how cramped it was.
There was a large picture window overlooking Markham Main Street, easing my viral-related claustrophobia. But I didn’t truly begin to relax until the proprietor launched into standard barber chit chat (Where are you from? What do you do? and so on). The easy routine of thousands of similar conversations lulled me into a momentary sense of security.
Like always, the repartee quickly turned to my job. I noted I was the general manager of Markham Subaru without thinking, already planning my answer to the inevitable follow-up question: How has business been lately?
Instead, the barber’s partner, whose stool was within spitting distance of us, stopped mid snip.
“How long have you been the manager there,” he asked abruptly.
“It’s my family’s business,” I responded. “So, pretty much forever.”
“I actually went in there once, back in 2010,” he began, completely ignoring the young man in his chair.
“The salespeople weren’t speaking my language. I walked around for a few minutes but nobody helped me, so I left.”
My brief respite was shattered and I found myself apologizing for this sub-par experience more than a decade ago.
Sensing my discomfort, my barber quickly changed the subject.
“So what are you, Italian?”
The conversation quickly returned to its more generic pattern and even though I responded perfunctorily, I couldn’t stop thinking of the unexpected complaint.
The lack of a proper greeting is one of the most common criticisms we receive from people who don’t end up purchasing vehicles from us. These comments usually come to via angry Google reviews or scathing e-mails directed to the sales manager.
Over the years I have heard many variations, everything from a room full of salespeople being too engrossed in their cellphones to look up, to people feeling they were ignored because they were dressed too casually (as an aside, this one always makes me laugh because I don’t know many people who shop in formal attire any more).
The latest example from the barber is a perfect example of how a client’s pre-conceived notions often taint their view of the store.
The barber walked into our store and heard our Asian salespeople speaking to each other (or possibly to clients) in their native tongue. Although they also speak perfect English, he was put off.
However, if he did walk around our store for any length of time without being greeted, that is definitely on us.
Our policy is to acknowledge clients with a simple hello right away and then give them a few moments to orient themselves before offering assistance. Even then, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had customers irritatingly waive salespeople away only to audibly huff frustratingly when they do need help. It is a delicate balancing that we don’t always get right.
The fact that we have a reception desk in the middle of our showroom does not seem to mitigate any of these complaints. Our receptionist is very friendly and will gladly fetch the first available salesperson if approached, but there in lies the rub. It seems that people resent having to ask for help.
I know from my own personal shopping experiences, I don’t want help until I want it. Then I am inevitably irritated when I can’t find someone that exact moment. Having to seek somebody out only irritates me further.
The good news is that since we are all prone to a little unreasonableness, it is relatively easy to recognize the symptoms in others. If we’re extremely lucky, we can smother those symptoms before they metastasize by using the best tool available, kindness.
Recently, one of our managers was watching a bit of a European Championship soccer match while chatting with one of his clients in our customer lounge. I heard them collectively gasp. Being a lover of all things sport, I came out of my office to see what was going on.
My office is right behind our customer lounge and walking to it gives me a clear view of the showroom floor. As I scampered to see the replay of whatever had caused such a reaction I could clearly see there was nobody in the showroom.
I watched the highlight (a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo for anybody interested) and turned again toward the showroom. In the span of what must have been no more than a minute or two, an older couple had entered the showroom and were looking at a car.
The wife was gesturing at our small group angrily and mumbling something under her breath.
I walked over and gave them my standard greeting:
“Welcome to Markham Subaru, can I help you with anything today”
“I don’t know, can you?” She shot back irritatingly.
Before I could reply, she jerked her body away from me and feinted for the front entrance. It did not take Sherlock Holmes’ mastery of body language to understand the client felt slighted so I quickly tried to diffuse the situation.
“I’m sorry miss. We didn’t see you come in, but no worries, I can get a salesperson for you if you like.”
She turned her head just enough so that I could see her scowl.
“It’s no worry, I can just leave,”
I had to give her credit, she was definitely quick on her feet, catching one of my common expressions and throwing it back at me.
“Again miss, I am sorry but I did not see you come in…”
“You had no problem seeing that,” she said pointing toward the television. “It’s okay, I can go home.”
“Again miss, I am sorry. I am not a salesperson. Perhaps they did not see you.” Here I betrayed my better instincts and baited her ever so slightly. “I’m sure you haven’t been waiting long but again, no worries, I can get you one of our excellent salespeople to assist you immediately.”
Without waiting for another snide remark, I gestured for one of the salespeople and preemptively introduced him.
After a quick conversation, the salesperson led them onto the lot to look at vehicles and arrange a test drive.
As I watched them scuttle about, I asked the other assembled salespeople why they hadn’t assisted them sooner.
“I don’t know why she’s so upset,” one of my more earnest salespeople answered sheepishly. “They really did just walk in. We were giving them a moment to look around.”
To date, the client has not purchased a vehicle (at least not from us). From experience, I know that even if they do choose a Subaru, they will be much more likely to defect to one of our competitors.
It is extremely difficult to recover from bungled a first impression. It doesn’t matter the severity of the gaffe or even if the reaction is justified or not. If the client believes they were ignored or disrespected then they were.
The curious nature of these spurned clients is that they rarely leave immediately. Instead, they do what they came to do, all while replaying (and often recreating) the negative interaction in their minds. By the end of the test drive, they are just as likely to remember the entire sales staff scoffing loudly when they walked into the showroom as they are to buy a car.
I don’t hold these emotions against anybody because I have often felt the same. Irrationality is the God-given right of every person tasked with spending their hard earned money with a commission salesperson.
I wish I knew the answer to this riddle but I think it would require concurrent masters degrees in psychology, anthropology and sociology.
As if to prove my point, during a break from writing, I noticed a couple wandering around the showroom like lost puppies. I asked them if they needed help and they conceded a salesperson’s assistance would be appreciated.
I called one over and he promptly introduced himself.
As soon as the customer was out of earshot, he whispered to me frustratingly,
“I asked them if they needed help when they came in.”
As I said, nobody needs help until they do. And when that moment comes, woe to the salesperson that doesn’t read the signs, no matter how subtle, immediately.