Just Like You Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover, Don't Judge Customers

Customer Relationship Management
Customer Service
Appearances can be deceiving and retailers should not judge customers by the way they look but treat everyone as potential clients.

Last week I heard a story that struck a chord. I was told that some time ago, British soccer player Wayne Rooney walked into a real estate agent's office dressed down in jeans and a hoodie. The receptionist made the assumption that he was not able to afford buying a property and didn't treat Rooney as a potential customer. Rooney, who is believed to be worth upwards of $60 million and ranks among the world's highest paid athletes, was more than able to afford buying a property and in fact did so.

Years ago I witnessed something a relatively similar incident. I was checking in at a high end hotel in Austria during a business trip when a young man, probably in his early 20s, walked in wearing torn jeans, a sweater that seemed not to have been washed for quite a while, and carrying a rucksack. Security guards I hadn't noticed before suddenly appeared in the lobby and I could see the receptionists look at each other as if they were expecting problems. I remember one reception clerk asking whether she could help and the young man slid a black Amex card on the desk. Suddenly, the attitude shifted and he was no longer treated, although silently, as a persona non grata.

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies are still making the mistake of judging customers by their appearance and if frontliners don't like what they see, they definitely don't keep it to themselves. It is one of my major pet peeves and I always ask why the way a customer is dressed should determine how he's treated in a retail environment.

Unfortunately this happens relatively regularly. Just weeks ago I needed a new battery for my watch. It was hot and humid in New York, and since I decided to walk the 1.8 miles to the retail store, I was wearing shorts and sandals. I might not have been dressed like someone who was going to drop a decent amount of cash--in fact I wasn't--but I didn't expect to be completely ignored when I walked in. Yet, nobody bothered to ask whether I needed help until the security guard walked towards me and asked: "Do you need anything?" My first instinct was to snap a sarcastic comment back, but resisted and just told him what I was in the store for. I was told that particular outlet didn't have the facility to change a battery and they would need to send the watch elsewhere, which would take a number of weeks. It was only when I asked how a simple battery change would take such a long time that I was given an alternative option--I could take it to their other store, a 20-minute walk away, to have it seen to there and then. The only thing I wasn't told was that the store would be closing in 10 minutes and I should take a cab if I wanted to get there on time.

My question is, would things have been different had I been better dressed? I decided to test this theory the following day when I returned to the second store. It's difficult to judge since they were different outlets, but at no point did I get the feeling that I was not welcome.

But the issue remains that appearances can be deceiving, as the first two stories show. And in a competitive market, where--as we pointed out last week--many customers are using brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms, can retailers afford to lose a potential sale even if from a one-time customer? And can they risk alienating today's one-time customer and lose all future potential business?

The British real estate agent learned from the mistake that could have lost the company a commission and today makes sure to train all staff not to be deceived by appearances. Frankly, I think this should be a common courtesy offered to another human being, but at least they are taking action. More retailers should follow suit.