The persnickety customer: Capital Region businesses share their philosophies for tackling a mounting wave of high-maintenance patrons.

Every business has them.

The pet hotel customer who wants his or her dog taken to the McDonald’s drive-thru window every day at the same time for a cheeseburger.

The diner who swears off a restaurant forever because the chef mistakenly put chicken in his or her chimichanga.
The website production client who insists the design be “jazzed up and pizzazzed up,” but can’t describe exactly what that means. He or she just knows it must be done now.

Ah, the persnickety customer.

You know the ones: They demand that everything be done their way, not yours; they spot the tiniest flaws in products or prices; and if they don’t get what they want—well, they loudly proclaim they’ll take their business elsewhere. Later on, their rather unflattering opinion of your company turns up on Angie’s List, Facebook or Twitter.

Fussy customers have been around at least as long as there have been places to shop. But there is mounting evidence that the recession might be causing their numbers to multiply, making it all the more laborious for business owners to abide by the adage, “The customer is always right.”

Customer loyalty consultant Chip Bell says shoppers emerging from the recent recession are more fickle than ever before. They expect to squeeze the most value they can out of every hard-earned dollar. And technology—the Internet, smartphones and social media—empowers them to do it.

“They show a low tolerance for hassle, zero patience for wait and no lenience for frontline employees who cannot address their need on the first contact,” Bell writes in How the Recession Changed Your Customers. “Let them encounter some bureaucratic process that adds no value to their experience, and they are off to visit a competitor.”

The global relationship management firm Convergys has discovered customer service trumps price and branding in the economic recovery. When more than 2,500 consumers were asked in its U.S. Consumer Scorecard what they expected from businesses, 29% said “quality of product” and 28% chose “quality of customer service.” Price, as a customer priority, fell from 24% in 2009 to 19% in 2010. And consumers at the end of the recession were 14% more likely to complain about a bad experience than they were before the recession began.

So why should a business care about a customer who’s hellbent on being choosy? Consider this: Convergys’ survey showed that 57% of the respondents had a negative experience with a business last year. Nearly half of them stopped doing business immediately, and 66% of them told someone else about it.

In an age when Facebook and Twitter are central to our communications, the viral risk can be huge, too: 62% of customers who read about a bad experience on social media stop or avoid doing business with that company altogether.

Last year, coffee giant Starbucks struck back against the high-maintenance caffeinated masses by levying higher prices on customers who seek special treatment. Order an extra shot of espresso and you’ll pay 70 cents for it. An additional shot of syrup in your latte will set you back another 40 cents. Low-maintenance customers who sip just a plain old cup of Joe, however, were rewarded with a 10-cent decrease.

Some Capital Region businesses are decidedly gentler in their approach to finicky patrons.

Michael Hackett owns Petz Plaza, which provides grooming, day care and long-term boarding for cats and dogs at locations on Perkins Road and Jefferson Highway. There’s an on-site veterinary clinic, as well as a bakery and a boutique with designer-name apparel and accessories for pampered four-legged friends. Hackett has thousands of customers. One of them wanted his or her dog taken through the McDonald’s drive-thru for that daily cheeseburger. Others are very particular about feeding times, attention, television programming or special toys.

“I should write a book,” Hackett says. “But that’s what we’re here for. If customers are very demanding or want particular services the first time they come in, I want to be able to prove it to them that we can provide that service. I don’t really put it on the customer; I put it on us. We’re selling our product to these people, and they have an expectation that we try 110%.”

Hackett insists that philosophy literally pays off: Some of his most demanding customers are now his best customers.
“If someone comes in here skeptical, but you prove to them that you can deliver, it’s very rewarding,” he says. “When you reach the point where they’re able to just walk in, say, ‘Here’s Fluffy,’ and take off, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Chuck Sanchez says good communication is critical in working with more challenging clients, particularly when artists are seated on one side of the table and business executives are on the other.

The owner and creative director of Stun Design & Interactive knows that the person who comes to him for a website to sell widgets “doesn’t want to hear a bunch of art talk.” From the beginning, Sanchez and his designers speak about color and design in terms of demographics and market research.

“They’re more inclined to believe what we’re saying if we put it in those terms,” Sanchez says. “They don’t think we’re just some wacko artists.”

Even so, communication has its challenges. Sanchez says his biggest one is in educating clients how to give precise feedback.

“They’ll come back and say, ‘You need to jazz that up.’ Or, ‘The logo needs to be bigger.’ Or, ‘Pizzazz it up a bit.’ That gives us nothing to work off of,” he says. “Convincing them that the logo doesn’t need to be half the size of the page is sometimes difficult. And I still haven’t figured out what ‘jazz it up’ or ‘pizzazz it up’ means.”

Tommy Stojak has dreamed of being in business since he was 5 years old. At the age of 16, he fell in love with restaurants.

Stojak was 21 when he opened his first Tex-Mex eatery, Sombreros, in Walker. Now, at 26, he has locations in Covington, Houma and Alexandria. He says emphatically that he doesn’t view his customers as customers. Instead, he considers them to be friends.

He’s been known to follow them out into the parking lot or drive to their home to personally apologize if their expectations aren’t met. It’s also why he doesn’t think twice about taking off to the grocery store on the spot for Splenda, Heinz 57 or other requests for items that he typically doesn’t have in stock.

When a group of teachers came in to eat lunch to celebrate the end of the school year and the restaurant was short-staffed, he drove to the school several days later to apologize and offer a free meal upon their return.

“When people come to my restaurant, I want to treat everybody like a king and a queen,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if we have 200 people. I want to treat everybody the same way. I do whatever has to be done to make it right.”

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