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Lesson No. 1: Never Mess With A Customer’s Sombrero

The problem started when one of our technicians figured a customer’s sombrero was just too special and decided to play with it. He did put it back; but not before an epic grease smudge was applied to its extra-wide brim.

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Back in 1986, I was an observer in my one and only focus group. Less than a year out of college, I sat behind the famed one-way mirror and listened quietly for hours as customers were being asked about their experiences at the service department of the vehicle dealership I was working for at the time. It was an up-and-coming dealership with increasing vehicle sales, but a decreasing customer satisfaction index when it came to the service it provided in the shop. The vehicle manufacturer came up with the idea of doing a focus group, as a way to create a better service-oriented experience and perhaps change the dealership’s customer service culture.

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It worked! As video snippets of the customers’ remarks were shared with the dealership’s employees, a realization of our customer service deficiencies was born. At first, the group reaction was one of rejection — “no way, the customer is wrong.” But slowly, everyone opened their eyes and realized how little we understood about what the customers wanted from us.

I always remember one customer’s grievance among all others: The guy who complained about his sombrero! I can’t remember his name, but I remember he had just bought a brand new Bronco II, Ford’s ingenious creation for a smaller sibling of the famous full-size Bronco. As I learned that day, the customer had gone to Cancun for a vacation and brought back a little Mexican sombrero that he hung from the rear view mirror as a memento of a fun trip — an imperative mnemonic device for any Tequila-fueled vacation, if you
ask me.

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The problem started when the Bronco II came in for a 3,000-mile service interval check. The service was provided on-time, and that should have been the end of it; however, one of our technicians figured the sombrero was just too special and decided to play with it. He did put it back; but not before an epic grease smudge was applied to its extra-wide brim.

A formal complaint was never issued and no one at the dealership, other than the tech, ever knew about the sombrero incident. Lo and behold, sombrero guy gets invited to the focus group, and a wrath was unleashed comparable to the level of an Aztec revolt. The customer sat quietly until the focus group moderator asked him about his experience at our dealership. From that point forward, he blasted every aspect of the dealership business because someone had smudged his sombrero.

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I remember most everyone back at the dealership reacting negatively to the customers’ furiousness. First reactions were visceral and loaded with profanity: “It’s just a hat,” or “ If he liked it so much he should had kept it at home.” Mind you, these were remarks from the owners and managers!

The sombrero incident led to a mad crusade in the service department to castigate the tech. The tech came forward quickly and volunteered his culpability, not before saying he could’ve avoided if he had a little hand cleaner. That’s when the spark of change lit up the dealership lot — maybe, just maybe, we could improve our customer satisfaction index by providing hand cleaner.

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I know it sounds silly, but for a rookie like me, it was the stuff of business school dreams. Nothing created more consciousness among the dealership personnel than the sombrero incident. Things began to change at all levels, and soon the dealership rose amongst its peers as one of the best service departments in all of Miami.

A letter of apology was sent to the customer about our lack of respect for his sombrero. The customer wrote back, and his response was shared with everyone — a Spartan reply stating, “Thanks for listening to my complaint. I’ll be back for my next service check soon.” Since that day, I have always tried my best to listen to our customers — not just when they complain.

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Certainly, most of us can’t afford to pay for focus groups for our businesses; however, we can’t afford not to stay in touch with our customers. I still get customers’ complaints, but thankfully nowadays, I get them via email or text messages. The immediacy of these forms of communications are key in improving customer service as they provide us with great opportunities to engage the customer and turn around any experience into a positive one. I try to respond to complaints immediately and engage all of the responsible team members, by sharing the customer’s communication and our reply. After all, the quicker the response time, the better chance of defusing the issue.

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Who knows, maybe if sombrero guy had texted me about the smudge we would never have let him get so enraged.

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