Once while in college in Philadelphia, Bottle Washer and I took a day trip to the Jersey Shore with Bottle Washer’s high school buddy Ross. (Although he has opted for corporate life as VP of a Major Bank, Ross really gets it when it comes to Small Business. I like Ross.) Anyway, this particular day we were cruising down the AC Expressway in my Camaro, T-tops off, natch, to appease Ross’ mom. Beloved family friends, whom we’ll call Mr. and Mrs. Burntout, had opened a Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, and after several years of his mom’s prodding, Ross was finally going down to check it out. Bottle Washer and I were eagerly anticipating, in our fledgling pre-Small Business Ownership way, having the opportunity to speak with some real Small Business Owners – they were actually doing what we had only dreamed about!
So commenced one of the most awkward days I have ever endured.
Cape May is a picturesque tourist magnet loaded with huge 19th century Victorian-style homes on lush tree-lined streets. Most of these Painted Ladies have been converted to Bed and Breakfasts or boutique hotels, including the one owned by Ross’ friends. It was hotter than the Devil’s crotch that day, and upon arrival we weren’t offered any incentive, say in the form of a cold drink, to over-stay our apparently limited welcome. Our visions of chilling in deep-cushioned wicker chairs on a shady porch and catching up all afternoon faded fast, which was actually okay, as the day cooled off quickly during the perfunctory house tour. We were reluctantly shown the exterior gingerbread trim that Mr. Burntout had hand carved, the bedroom quilts that Mrs. Burntout had hand sewn, the bottles lined up holding collections of shells, sand, and sea glass, and the driftwood artfully displayed on each fireplace mantle. It was obvious that this tired old couple had poured hours of love and effort into their Small Business.
But let me tell you, the honeymoon was over. While they were dourly showing us around the magnificent kitchen straight from the set of Downton Abbey, through the gleaming window I noticed a sun-kissed and sandy young family happily showering off memories of a beach vacation in the outdoor stalls. It was so sweetly quaint. Until Mrs. Burntout came up behind me. “Just look at them,” she hissed into my ear, “trying to turn a two-night stay into a three-day stay.” She then proceeded to recount all of this particular family’s sins, which included heinous offenses such as using extra towels, requesting additional cookies at afternoon tea, asking if they could put the baby’s milk in the refrigerator, and having the nerve to not leave beautiful Cape May at precisely 11am check-out time, but stay and enjoy the remainder of the day at the beach, which led to the most unforgivable action of them all: the after-checkout rinsing in the outdoor showers, a crime which we were now all witnessing.
I was dumbstruck – absolutely horrified. These people were Mr. and Mrs. Burntout’s customers, their livelihood, their guests! The entire experience rattled me like a bingo ball in a cage. Small Business Owners cherish their customers, don’t they? The whole building-relationships-with-their-patrons-thing. They love being Small Business Owners, right? They are living the dream! Who were these people? What was wrong with them? On the somber ride back to Philly I gave Bottle Washer this command: “If I EVER get that bitter and jaded about our customers, shoot me.” Wow. I sure am glad that Bottle Washer takes orders about as well as a feral cat.
Unfortunately, resentment toward customers is a common manifestation and cause of Small Business Owner burn out,and yep, it has happened to me. You know those customers that you greet each day with a charming smile and jump through hoops to please? They will steal from you. They will demand advice, services, and products from you for which they will have no intention of paying. They will be unapologetically rude and unreasonable. They will trash your facility and inexplicably whiz all over your restroom floor. You will come to loathe them. Not just a mild dislike, but a deep visceral resentment.
Sadly, this is normal. Not completely healthy, perhaps, but a very real and common phenomenon shared by your fellow Small Business Owners. Although Small Business Owners are typically portrayed as living their passion, turning their backs on the corporate jungle to hack their way independently through the commercial underbrush to self-sufficiency, carried along effortlessly by the ebullient love of their trade, in fact they are exhausted, over-extended, and feel slightly like everyone is taking advantage of them. They get cynical. And sometimes, like Mr. and Mrs. Burntout, a bit mean. The exchange of service or product for compensation can turn into a grudge match, with the customers perceived as being on the other team.
In Rebel Bookseller, a great read for Small Business Owners by the way, author Andrew Laties writes about this subject: “I’d developed a loathing for our customers. They didn’t know it, of course. They thought I loved them…Perhaps you think I was alone in this irritation with the people in a store. Not at all. Every retailer, every restaurateur, every salesperson struggles with hatred of the customer. That’s why there are signs posted in backrooms saying, ‘Remember, without our customers, we’re out of business, and you’re out of a job.’ It’s brutally tough to be nice to customers.” (This doesn’t only happen to business owners, by the way. At my first job out of college, in a department store, one salesclerk got so frustrated with a rude customer she broke the customer’s nose with one of those old sliding credit card imprinters.)
The best way to prevent or diminish customer burn out is to give yourself a break – literally. All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy, and Small Business Owners a bit postal. So, the next time that customer who reminds you of Angela Lansbury gives you a jar of her lovingly-made peach jam, and as you graciously tell her how yummy it will be smeared on your fresh toast in the morning you are actually thinking of smearing it all over her grandmotherly face, you need to seriously consider taking one or more of these actions:
1. Take regular vacations. Schedule them at least 6-12 months ahead so you have it to look forward to, which alone can help your outlook. Bottle Washer gets squirrelly during the long, dark winters we have. Looking forward to his annual March weekend in Florida is the only thing that gets him past December. One contractor we know takes a three-day golf weekend every quarter, whether he feels he needs it or not. Arrange for staff coverage or notify your customer base that you will be closed well in advance. You may not think so, but customers generally are understanding and will plan accordingly. To minimize the impact on your bottom line, plan your vacations during your cyclical slow times. Be sure when doing your annual financial plan that you take into account that you are expected to be paid for this week or two without bringing in any revenue. Oh, and by the way, “take regular vacations” means go somewhere else. Anywhere. Even if it’s your brother’s couch in Ohio. A staycation does not count for us Small Business Owners, who tend to have the self discipline of a fat kid in a candy shop on our days off; the temptation to go into work “for just an hour or so” is too great for us if we are still in town.
2. Plan for down time as a regular part of your work hours. An architect we know holds a one-drink limit wine and cheese hour at his office every Friday afternoon – for himself, staff, and anyone else who happens to wander in. The only rule – no work talk. It allows for him and his staff to interact in a casual manner, relate on a personal level, and decompress after a stressful week before heading home to their families for the weekend. Bottle Washer tries to schedule a half day every week that he has no client interaction or appointments. He uses that time for long-range planning, catching up on paperwork, or occasionally a long drive in his convertible.
3. Hire more help. Perhaps you are trying to do it all, and it is too much. It may be time to hire another employee or increase the hours of an existing employee. If you aren’t sure if you can afford higher payroll expenses, check out my post entitled “Hiring Series: Calculating the cost of Your First Employee” for guidance.
4. Switch job duties with a partner or employee. Sometimes just doing something else temporarily or on a regular basis is enough to recharge your battery, especially if it does not involve customer contact.
5. Be sure you are being paid adequately. If you feel you are being paid unfairly, you will come to resent your customers and your business as the source of the low wage. Reassess your pricing structure and expenses. If your enterprise cannot support an income that satisfies you, then you need to rethink the viability of your business model.
6. Stay ahead of your accounts receivable. Do not allow unpaid billings to fester and cause resentments. Have a solid Billing and Collections Policy that gets results and follow it diligently so financial tensions don’t develop between you and your clientele.
7. Don’t let customers abuse or manipulate you. Although by far most of your customers are well meaning and gracious, a few will try to squeeze every ounce of energy/profit/product/fill in the blank from you. Don’t let them. Bottle Washer and I learned this lesson, again, this winter. We offer a service to individuals on an annual basis. To accommodate the needs of our customer base, which tends to travel extensively, we allowed for one one-month freeze of their service, that is, the service could be put on hold for one month, with advance notice, at some point during the year. It was so simple and clear cut. How could this go wrong? Well, it quickly became a quagmire. First customers would forget to inform us of their desire to freeze the service, and we were doing it retroactively, which was a huge hassle on the billing side. Then people began to slowly decrease the amount of time of the hold, until finally, one day a lady asked Bottle Washer to freeze her service for ONE DAY, pointing out to him that she still had 29 MORE DAYS which she could freeze her service that year. Uh-oh. You’ve heard of the straw that broke the camel’s back? Well, that was it, and the end of our freeze option. The point is, WE let it get to that point. Be nice, but don’t be a patsy.
8. Vent, but be careful to whom. Fellow Small Business Owners are excellent for this. Did you ever wonder why doctors hang out with doctors, and teachers hang out with teachers? It’s because they understand each other. Other Small Business Owners get that patrons can be draining. Vindication is good for the soul. But – warning – someone else may perceive you as just being a jerk. Last summer as I was having dinner with friends – who are not Small Business Owners – I began to unload about this really annoying customer. Halfway through the story I realized that the woman with whom I was eating was also a customer of mine, and that she had recently done the exact same thing. Ouch. It was a difficult and less-than-successful back pedal.
Have you ever experienced resentment toward your customers? How did you rectify the situation? If not, how do you avoid it?