Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bottom Line

Posted by: Julie Zando-Dennis

I am a strong proponent of “buy local,” but because of the poor service I have received by many local businesses, lately I think twice before selecting an Easton business. Unfortunately, I have heard many others complain that service in Easton isn’t up to snuff.

By way of example – last year I sought and hired an Easton accountant. The initial meeting went well enough, and I handed over all my paperwork about two months before the deadline. Then . . . silence. I placed a couple of emails to make sure that the accountant received certain supplemental documents. No response. Phoned several times and left messages. Again, no response. At one point, the telephone company advised that the number was inoperable. I started to stress. More emails. Began to seriously worry about what I would do, given that I had handed off all the original documents and did not make copies. Finally, one day before the deadline, I received in the mail an envelope with my prepared return. With a bill. While I was grateful that the return had been prepared, I wasn’t happy about the stress caused by the accountant’s lack of communication. I promptly paid the bill, but the check wasn’t cashed for over four months. Every time I reconciled my bank statement, I had to account for this annoying, un-cashed check. Concerned at one point that my check hadn’t been delivered, I emailed to inquire whether it had been received. I received no response.

The pièce de résistance . . . the mother of all examples of bad service . . .

happened when my partner and I went to a gourmet store for a coffee and a bit of breakfast. We walk in; one other customer is in the shop. The counter person has her back to us, busily preparing a large order. No problem, we’ll wait. Minutes pass. Many minutes. The counter person still has not turned around, and seemed to be in a bad mood. A carafe of brewed coffee sat on a side counter, but no cups were provided nearby. “Gee,” we think, “it would be nice if the counter person turned, handed us cups, and said ‘help yourselves to coffee while I manage this large order.’” Didn’t happen.

I started to feel cranky from caffeine deprivation. Another person walked in. By this time, 10 minutes had gone by. I would have given up, but was still in an early morning fog and really needed that coffee. Yet another person walked in. Maybe 15 minutes had passed. We all stand around in the relatively small shop, hesitant and a little embarrassed because we don’t know what’s going on. The counter person still has not turned to acknowledge us, or to say something friendly like “will be with you in just a moment.” Or more appropriately, “sorry, I’m caught up with a large order, help yourself to some coffee while you wait.” But no.

It was getting weird in that shop, and yes, we should have left, but instead started to bargain with ourselves: “we’ve invested time here; is it worth it to start over in a new shop?” Finally, the counter person turns, and to my utter disbelief, says to the first customer: “Can I help you?” She wasn’t preparing that large order for that customer! Apparently, she had overslept or something had come up and she was behind with a standing order. But if that was the case, she should have acknowledged her customers and apologized for the wait. And offer a complimentary cup of coffee for our inconvenience. The first customer ordered a couple of sandwiches. The counter person turned to us to ask what we wanted, perhaps thinking that if it was just coffee, she might be able to manage our order first. We wanted food, so she said “it will be at least 15 minutes.” What? We left and have never gone back again. And never will.

I’m the type of consumer who will pay for service. While I have a limited disposable income, I’ll gladly pay for good service so that I don’t have to spend precious time stressing over things, like: “will my tax return be submitted on time?” and “will I get that first cup of coffee?”

Another example: In the health food store I saw an ad for a chemical-free, green housecleaner. Thought “hmmm, that might be worthwhile once or twice a month.” Called. Made an appointment for the cleaner to stop by the house in the early evening, after work. On the allotted day, I left work earlier than usual to make the appointment. Traffic. Got to the house with 10 minutes to spare. The housecleaner? A no show. I never received a phone call saying, “Oh, I’m really sorry that I inconvenienced you.” If I had, I would have gladly given the cleaner another chance.

Yet another example. A contractor came by the house to take measurements to estimate a job. We had a friendly chat, and he left with the promise that he would contact me in a couple of days. Nothing. Now, I know contractors are notorious, but this one had all the trappings of a well-run small business. A dedicated phone line and answering machine. A website. A new truck with the business name painted elegantly on the side. I called and left a message that I was still interested in hearing back about that quote. Nada. Look, I know contractors are in demand, but we’re in a recession and this job could have lead to many others.

Sadly, these are just a sampling of many such experiences in Easton. In contrast, every time I’ve purchased goods or services in Allentown, Bethlehem, or Phillipsburg, I’ve had prompt, reliable service. I want to support Easton small businesses, so this blog is written in the hope that my criticism will be constructive. But after talking to several others who feel similarly, I can’t help but think that many Easton small businesses are either clueless or take their customers for granted. Judging from the way downtown businesses open and close, one might think that service would be of prime importance. As for the no shows at my house, does anyone think the lack of service is due to my West Ward address?


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's just an Easton thing, it's that customer service has fallen off everywhere.
I haven't dealt w/ a lot of contractors, but, when I had my roof done, we used Ziggy's. they used to be in Easton but have moved to bethlem I think. fantastic. didn't even ask for a dime before the work was started, came on the day promised, came back to do some detail work, and cleaned up like they were never there (this was a full tear off 3 story roof!)best roofing contractor i ever met.
downtown, Genesis Bicylces is fantastic as well. been in business w/ the same owner for over 30 years. wonderful shop and people.
Easton Bakery doesn't have a huge selection, but they are prompt and courteous and very friendly.
I've always enjoyed pizza from Gino's downtown.
I've had bad service places too. I don't go to Al's cleaners anymore cause of rudeness, but lots of people still go there.
so, you just have to ask around, see who people use.

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

I agree with you that customer service has generally declined, and it is especially bad at the big box stores.

But really I’m directing my comments to those businesses where service is of utmost importance. I’ll buy a TV at a box store despite the poor service because a box store has cheap prices, but when it comes to professional services – accountants, contractors and the like – service is everything. This is especially true for upscale stores that, for example, sell $4.00 specialty coffees. What they are really selling for $4 is service and ambiance. So if a shop wants to attract an upscale market, the service had better reflect the expectations of that market. Otherwise, discriminating and educated consumers will go elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with them, but hyphenated last names do bother and scare some people. I don't know why, but it happens. Perhaps some of your reactions have more to do with that fact. Again, I am not bothered by them, but I know people who feel very uncomfortable when they meet individuals with the dash. Don't change your name; it's neat.

darkest-hour said...

Evidently, in the world of anonymous 5:13 it is assumed that people introduce themselves upon entering stores and gourmet coffee shops. What country is that by the way?

noel jones said...

Darkest hour, i'm always so happy when you post.

Bad customer service is one of my biggest pet-peeves, largely because in Alaska, where I grew up, service positions were not held by bitter adults who had few options in employment, rather it was a rite of passage of youth--teenagers were excited to get their first jobs, and because they were younger than most of their customers, it was easy to be respectful. And no one was bitter because everyone knew that it was something that all of their customers had done when they were teens. And the customers treated them with respect for the same reason.

As for Easton, small businesses really need to get a clue, and get it quickly. How is it that shops downtown think that they can close in the early afternoon in some cases, or at random times, and not have their businesses suffer? The general lack of proactivity and follow-up in customer service here is stunning. It makes me growl.

And then there are all the horribly dressed, trashy storefront windows that could be so attractive if designed properly...but that's another topic...

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

I buy a speciality pet food for my dog. It's not sold everywhere and is hard to find, but there is a shop in Easton that sells it. They close at 2 pm on Saturday. On Saturday! I am barely getting my shopping list finalized by 2 pm Saturday, let alone having made my shopping rounds. Because of these impossible hours, I now buy the food in Philliipsburg.

Nikkita said...

Julie, thanks for this post. I have been thinking the same thing but didn't know how to address it in a way that would be pc :)

G-man and I talked about this at the West Word Launch party and my experience with a rude owner of a local pub. I also had a bad experience at Al's and a number of other businesses. How do you go about giving your dollars to local businesses when a lot of them are either too rude or too expensive?

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

The mom and pop stores of Easton can't compete with box store prices. They have to emphasize service to survive. But small businesses in Easton have been slow to adapt, with ridiculous Saturday hours, no Sunday hours, and/or neglectful service.

Mom and pop should realize that in this highly mobile economy, customers have had the advantage of seeing many successful business models, and if local stores aren't keeping up, it seems, at minimum, quaint.

Also, customers who come from dense cities are used to competition, and that competition squeezes out the inefficient operation that doesn't keep up. Easton businesses seem to think there is no competition, but clearly their thinking is antiquated.

I'm a commuter, so in the course of my seventy mile daily commute, I can choose from a number of communities in which to purchase dry cleaning, appliances, hardware, clothes, etc. The businesses in Bethlehem, NY and NJ seem to be very saavy about attracting my business, with style, service, and accessible hours. Easton -- it's time to step it up.

Anonymous said...

You cannot ask mom and pop retailers to give up their personal lives to make a sale. I know that they fret with this issue all the time. How can I serve my customer and my family? When you live in a community, you learn to respect your neighbor including your business neighbors. I try to accommodate them as much as they will bend over backwards for me. It's a two way street.

People talk often about how the big box stores have knocked out the mom and pop retailers. That is not exactly true. The consumer has knocked them out. Concerns about price and hours have caused the consumer to depart the local retailer. We are to blame for killing of the local independent merchant.

When I was a kid, you could not shop on Sundays in Pa because of blue laws. Some places still have them. Maybe we should bring them back. It would save a lot of small retailers. I think Bergen County still has them. Don't want all the traffic messing up their Sunday afternoons.

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

Mom and pop don't have to give up their personal lives. Close the shop on Monday and Tuesday if need be (tellingly, the hip and happening Tranquil Tea House on 4th St has adopted this model) but stay open on Saturday and Sundays.

If you are religiously observant, hire someone to keep your store open on the weekends. My dad was a small business owner, and I can tell you, when he had to feed a family of six, he was far more interested in keeping his business alive than his "personal life."

noel jones said...

I agree, Julie. It's not so much about being open every day, as being open standard hours in the day, and keeping those hours. Several times in Easton I have got to a business and hour before they say they close, to find out they decided to close early that day.

They can't expect customers to keep trying to come back if they don't honor their own posted hours.

Also, we need more businesses that stay open in the evenings, when commuters have a chance to shop. We also need this to help provide a more vibrant night life in the square downtown.

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

With respect to Anon 9:56 am's comment about the Blue laws . . . yes, its true Bergen County merchants are closed on Sundays. But Bergen County reasonably cannot be compared to Easton, and any justification Bergen uses for its Blue law wouldn't apply here.

Bergen County is a rich county minutes away from the biggest financial engine in the world - NYC. Local stores in Bergen County are robust because the area is awash in money. Bergen merchants can afford to close on Sunday because they are on average wealthier than Northampton County merchants.

Easton merchants need to be more flexible and creative than its Bergen County counterparts if Easton expects to have a thriving economy.

Anonymous said...

You are taking the position that you can tell me how to run my personal life. (If that is not a personal attack, I don't know what is)

I am a retailer and I opt to close at 4:00 on Saturday and close all day on Sunday. That is how I choose to run my business. I t accommodates my personal life and my family and obligations to my church.

I understand that there are people who will not like it and choose to shop elsewhere. Those are the outcomes of business decisions. But, the choice is mine. Not yours. You should respect the choice and move on. The personal attacks are uncalled for.

Julie Zando-Dennis said...

Have scoured this post and can't find anything remotely like a "personal attack." Your reaction to our objective and constructive criticism seems hysterical and high strung.

Jay Cimerol said...

I tend to keep my comments to my self but with being in business for 29 years 25 in the west ward I will just make this comment and tend to take no sides with it. Business today is hard for most, being a small run business you have to take extreme measures to reduce overhead and tighten our belts Ie(Less employees)Our banks are reducing credit lines and in most cases taking them away. We all are dealing with much more stress these days due to the slow and financial out look and future of our business's. We all have to work harder for less and the fun sometimes just isn't their anymore. What I'm saying is there are times when all the above is accidentally reflected in our customer service dealing with the day to day pressures. Now is this a good excuse absolutely not some people tend to handle stress different from others and I am a big 110% fan of customer service but I can also see how easy it can be to slip from your number one policy. So you see it's not Easton that makes it hard it's the economy in general that has a big pull on this topic. Bethlehem is seeing a nice big development that is feeding a lot of these small shops, Allentown is on the up and when your business is doing good or even ok your attitude is at its all time high especially when you can bring back on people so you can once again spend time with your family. As far as not keeping in touch with your customers or not returning calls, well there is just no excuse for that especially in today's economy. Hope this helps, again I usually keep to my self but thought maybe from an owners out look it might be able to be looked at at little differently. Sorry for the winded message.

Anonymous said...

"he was far more interested in keeping his business alive than his "personal life."


"seems hysterical and high strung."

are your quotes. They are personal in response to what I have said.

If you don't like my business, my hours, move on, and shop elsewhere. I don't need to be personally attacked because I don't keep hours to meet your schedule. I do have obligations to family and religion that cannot keep my business open for everyone. My religious beliefs and obligations do not permit me to open my business to suit everyone's schedule. I don't expect that everyone can buy my services. i never attack those who do not. I guess I am more tolerant than my neighbors.