When I was a lad, New Zealand was a different place. There was no such thing as big-box retailing and we all shopped at local retailers owned by people we knew. Sure, the selection was less rich, but it made things far simpler. Best of all, the fact that the person selling us vegetables, the latest Phillips HiFi systems, or servicing our Mk1 Cortina probably lived around the corner from us and was involved in the same community groups that we were made good service a real imperative.
One of the earliest forays into a new type of retailing was from a company by the name of LV Martin and son. Started in the 1930s, my earliest memories of the business were of TV ads featuring Alan Martin, presumably the son of said LV. Each advert finished up with Alan clearly stating: "If it's not right we'll put it right and it's the putting right that counts."
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Essentially Alan's angle was that instead of buying from little Mum and Dad shops with tiny scale, buying from the Martin clan meant you'd have the heft to get better prices, but the personal service and after-sales care that you were used to from your local store would still be there. The best of both worlds. And it stood LV Martin in good stead - the company survived until only a few years ago when it was acquired by Smith's City. That's close to 80 years and three generations, not at all bad for retailing.
I was thinking of the old Martin family and their focus on customer service recently as I navigated my ill-fated door handle journey. You see, about a decade ago I spent a year building our house. As the slightly obsessive-compulsive person I am, when it came to choosing architectural hardware, I did a lot of research and finally found someone who, like the Martins, had his name above the front door. Nick was a gent and gave me a good deal on the house lot of latches, handles and stays that I needed.
Fast forward to the other week when the handle of our back door snapped. Somewhat naively, I figured it would be like in the LV Martin days and hence I took the handle back into the store to ask about warranties and to acquire another unit.
The person behind the counter had an approach that would make old Alan Martin spin in his grave - they denied any knowledge of the person who sold me the handles (yes, this despite the business still bearing his name) and didn't even answer my question about whether these handles have a warranty or not. Realising I wasn't going to get anywhere, I just ordered and paid for a new handle and was told it would be a week away.
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When a week rolled around, I went into the store to pick up the handle, only to realise that, while I had ordered a single unit, said salesperson had ordered a double set. Now that's all fine, I'm well aware that mistakes happen, but their response was to suggest that I had made a mistake and that getting the right thing would be a huge imposition on their valuable time.
It is the putting right that counts, right?
Now I realise we're in a world where price trumps everything. I also realise that the days of the customer always being right are long gone. In this day of razor-thin margins and comparison shopping by phone, the number one focus is on getting the sale and beating the competitors' pricing. But still, at some point given how much choice consumers now have, the thought of doing battle with someone who clearly doesn't appreciate your custom won't be worth the few dollars saved.
I'm not suggesting that we should bow to the most onerous of demands from petulant customers. At Cactus Outdoor we've had our fair share of people taking the mickey and wanting freebies. But our default remains the same: our aim is to have the customer leave the store (or the website, for that matter) pleased with their experience and looking forward to their next visit.
It's a simple ambition, and one that harks back to a quaint old man with a very simple promise: "If it's not right we'll put it right and it's the putting right that counts."
- Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and investor.