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A Higher Standard of Customer Care

“Getting money is not all a man’s business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.” – Samuel Johnson

I had asked to see the oldest and best quality miniatures he had.

From a cabinet in an unlit room, the merchant withdrew a portfolio of about two dozen paintings. He laid them on the display table and ordered me a coffee. Within seconds, it was set before me, a rich, dark coffee in a beautiful china cup.

He carefully placed before me the intricately painted scenes of mughals hunting and gods cavorting. Each one was more spectacular than the last. I used a magnifying glass to examine the exquisite details – the beautifully painted faces (typical of this particular style), the individually drawn and colored fingers and toes. These were a world apart from the commercial-quality miniatures tourists were buying in the marketplace. I was happy to have found this dealer.

I selected about a half dozen that I thought were exceptional, both in terms of the details, the number of figures, and the quality of the painting. “These are great,” I told him. “These are the best you have?”

His eyes lit up. “These are the best you will find anywhere,” he said. “They can no longer be duplicated. But I have several more that are even more special. More than a hundred years old. All by master artists.”

“I’d like to see them.”

He bowed to me, went back to the unlit room, and brought out a locked leather binder from which he withdrew about a dozen more. These were nothing less than astonishing.

“My fingers are shaking just to take them out and show them to you,” he said. “It has been a long time since we have had a customer who could appreciate them.”

And that’s when it happened. As I reached out to hold one of these precious pieces, my shirt sleeve caught the rim of the cup and the coffee spilled all over the table. We both jumped up.

“Oh no!” I muttered.

He grabbed the top piece and pulled it aside to safety. But before he could grab the second sheet, the coffee had reached it. We both started grabbing the ancient masterpieces and pulling them off the table, but the coffee was spreading out over the glass so quickly. Six of them got wet. He shouted something in Hindi. A half-dozen servants rushed in with fine cotton towels and we all started dabbing the wet paper.

“Oh no,” I kept repeating. I was humiliated and shocked. What had I just done? How much money had I just wasted? How many one-of-a-kind masterpieces had I destroyed?

“Not to worry, sir.” the merchant said gently. “It’s nothing.”

I couldn’t even look him in the face. I just stood there, slump-shouldered, shaking my head. “I’m such a klutz,” I said.

He came over to me and rubbed my back. “Please, sir. Don’t be upset. This was just a little accident. And let me assure you, you have no obligation to buy any of these. This is just a risk of our business.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In any antique or fine art gallery anywhere else in the world, I would have been required to pay for anything I damaged. Not only was he telling me that I had no such obligation, he was rubbing my back to calm me down. He seemed more upset by my reaction than by the damage I had caused.

I just stood there shaking my head.

“Come over and look,” he said. “See. The coffee only went into the borders. The images themselves have not been touched.”

I looked. He was right. But the borders were an integral part of the art. The damage was still there.

“And we cleaned it up in good time,” he said. “When it dries, the stain will be almost invisible.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “How much will all of these cost me?”

He turned me around so I was looking directly at him. “You do not owe me anything,” he said. “I told you. It was an accident. I only want that you are feeling comfortable.” And I had the strongest feeling that he meant it.

After the paintings dried, we began sorting through them again. I ended up buying four of them, three that had been victims of my coffee spill and one that had not.

In the days that followed that incident, I couldn’t help but think about it. The cynic in me kept wondering if it wasn’t all some kind of sophisticated set-up. Not my spilling the coffee – the odds of predicting that would have been too remote – but the merchant’s reaction to it. In assuring me that I didn’t have to pay for the damaged pieces, was he purposely adding to the feeling of guilt I had already displayed? Was he using his 20 years of selling experience to take advantage of my emotions?

I kept asking myself those questions, and the answers were always the same: He was not manipulating me. He was trying to restore my good feelings.

This is something I have noticed since the first day I arrived in India: the incredible graciousness of the people.

For example:

  • When Hindus meet one another, they place their hands together, prayer-like, and say, “namaste.” I have heard this word defined by American yoga instructors as “peace,” but it means much more than that. It means, roughly, “My soul honors the soul inside you.”
  • When you enter a hotel or house for the first time, the host greets you at the door and puts a bit of color on your forehead to ward off evil or bring you good luck. Then you are given a glass of watermelon juice and sometimes a garland of flowers.
  • As we moved through the gate of our hotel, we were showered with rose petals – literally showered by a guard perched on a lintel beam above us.
  • When I pass a hotel employee, he/she stops what he/she is doing and greets me. (This is true in most top hotels, but in India it is done with a special reverence.)
  • When my friend mentioned that her fish was a little cold, the chef himself came out to apologize, told us we wouldn’t pay for it, and offered us a free round of drinks. He asked us not to judge him by this “inexcusable error,” and to come back the following night to be “treated properly.”
  • Before you get a massage, the masseuse bathes your feet in flower-scented water and tells you, “We have a tradition that says our clients are like gods – and that is how I hope to treat you today.”

I can’t say this treatment is universal in India. We’ve been staying in five-star hotels. Still, the gestures seem so genuine. The smiles so real. The effort so enthusiastic.

What happens when you are treated this way? Well, it makes us want to reciprocate. We have found ourselves smiling more and saying thank you more frequently. When the service is imperfect for any reason, we are less troubled and more forgiving.

I have written about the psychological principle of reciprocity before. It is one of the primary selling strategies outlined in Robert Cialdini’s seminal work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In that book, Cialdini says:

“The rule [of reciprocity] says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favor, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own; if a couple invites us to a party, we should be sure to invite them to one of ours. By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like.”

Most of the marketers I know see Cialdini’s book as a how-to guide to get customers to buy more. What they don’t know is that Cialdini wrote it for the consumer, to help them avoid being manipulated into buying.

Cialdini was an academic. Like most academics, he didn’t like the idea of marketing. But as it turned out, the book became a best-seller with marketers – the very people he was writing against. When he realized his future income was going to come from his opponents rather than consumers, he wrote another book about ethical marketing. In it, he restated the same principles but with the hope that marketers would use them with integrity, not to take advantage of human psychology.

My experience in India, and particularly with the fine-art merchant, reinforces a belief (maybe it’s just a hope) about business: that you can’t and shouldn’t fake customer care. If you want your business to reach its full potential, you have to adopt a customer service philosophy that is based on complete and honest goodwill. You have to commit yourself (and get your employees to commit) to treating your customers like gold. Actually, better than gold. You have to treat them as if you see in them the same goodness that resides inside you.

If you can do that, you will never worry about “what’s in it for me,” but about what you can do to make your customers’ experience with you sublime. That doesn’t mean that you don’t charge them for the services and goods you provide. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t require them to reciprocate by treating you well.

But by setting this sort of standard, you will distinguish yourself from your competition and make it difficult for your customers to be satisfied with anyone but you. They will come back to you more frequently and buy from you more eagerly because they will be getting something from you that your competitors don’t even understand.

I am proud to say that most of the few clients I work with today have established a “gold” standard of customer service, and I can see how their businesses are growing because of it. They aren’t delivering this level of service to gain more business. They are doing it because they sincerely care about their customers… and you can’t fake that.

[Ed. Note: Get Michael Masterson’s insights into becoming successful in your business and personal life, achieving financial independence, and accomplishing all your goals on his new website. You’ll find updates on all of Michael’s books, news on upcoming ETR events, Michael’s blog, and room to send in your comments and questions. Check it out today.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.