“I’m a Customer Too”

Photo credit: Alan Bishop via Unsplash

Happy Monday, folks. Let’s start the week off with a story, shall we?

Let’s.

On Saturday I was at REI with friends, one of whom wanted to return hiking poles that broke while he was skiing. Yes, he used hiking poles as skiing poles (they’re pretty much the same thing), which is A-OK to everyone in the world except the folks who wrote REI’s return policy.

They wouldn’t take the poles back. Why? Because he wasn’t using them for their intended purpose. If the poles had broken while he was hiking, then REI would take the poles back. But he was skiing.

Ugh.

To add insult to injury, REI will also take back a tent that your crazy dog ripped while chasing a leaf, as long as keep mum about your stupid dog and just tell them, “the tent broke.”

Double ugh.

My friend talked the annoying (nevertheless futile) situation over with a knowledgeable sales rep, and rather than dismiss my friend as a disgruntled customer, the sales rep kindly offered, “I understand.” And then:

“I’m a customer too.”

It was a brilliant response.

And of course, the first thing I thought was “blog post.”

Shameless.

Anyway, here’s why it was the perfect reply.

After the sales rep uttered those four small, powerful words, I immediately envisioned him without his khaki “REI” vest and headset, and in regular people clothes, shopping the aisles the same way I do–perusing the latest and greatest backpacking gadgets, and trying to not buy every. single. thing (because that’s what REI does to you, dammit. I love it but I hate it. Gah). I imagined him elated to have finally reached Deception Peak after a long, challenging hike. I imagined him hiking to Lake Katherine with his brand new pack and having one of the straps snap, and making plans to return it to REI.

With those words, “I’m a customer too,” he instantly joined my team, not the REI team. I knew instantly that he really did understand where I (and my friend with the bum hiking pole) was coming from.

My friends and I know REI is a humongous company with lots of policies, and their in-store sales reps–no matter how thoughtful, compassionate, and eager to help–only have so much power over returns. We get it. Do we love it? No, but we hate it less when the salesperson ensures he understands us.

I feel confident and validated when I know the sales person shops just like I do and expects the same things. And he or she know what it’s like when a product or service fails to meet my expectations (read: we have the same values).

(Also, I should note that REI does an excellent job of employing people who live the REI brand. So employing the right people is a mission-critical component too).

REI couldn’t exchange my friend’s hiking poles, but the salesmen could mitigate some of his dissatisfaction by saying, “I understand, I’m one of you.”

The most important point is: It was a powerful reminder that the best way to understand your customers is to walk in their shoes. (Or with their hiking poles…). So, I encourage all business owners to shop their own stores, peruse their own websites, use their own product, read old marketing emails or take whatever action is necessary to live and breath as their customer.

What you learn might surprise you.

**BONUS** Because you read the whole post: My favorite example of a person discovering the product he created is a Grade A piece of crap is in Season 1, Episode 8 of “Undercover Boss.” Rick Arquilla, the president and COO of Roto-Rooter, discovers the color-based dispatch technology he invented is SUPER confusing and hard to use. Even better: Arquilla can’t understand why he designed it that way because he is colorblind. So many questions…

Have a great week, friends!

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