By Peter Smith
Peter Smith has more than 30 years of experience building wholesale and retail sales teams. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems.
I checked into a Crowne Plaza hotel recently and what should have been an ordinary experience turned sour in no time at all.

Just as the check-in process appeared to be leading to an uneventful conclusion, the guy checking me in asked if I was a Hilton Honors member. When I replied that I was, he informed me of the benefits that I would have received if only I had not booked through a third party (booking website Expedia, as it happens).

His question and subtle admonition struck me as unhelpful and unnecessary. Without intending to do so, he had basically informed me that despite being a long-time Hilton Honors member, I was being penalized for having the audacity to book through a third party instead of through the hotel directly. Benefits that I might have received would, therefore, be denied me.

Expedia is, of course, an authorized business partner of Hilton and, presumably, the hotel chain would prefer that Expedia customers book their stays at Hilton properties and not Marriott, Starwood or some other hotel. Nonetheless, they see no contradiction in working with third-party sites, even as they treat their customers like they scalped their reservations from forgers and thieves.

A couple of days after my Hilton Honors experience, I returned a book to Barnes & Noble for a credit.

The book was a nice birthday present but it also was one that I had already bought and read. The gift-giver had thoughtfully put a gift receipt in with the book, so I didn’t expect any issues in returning it to the store. Alas, ‘twas not to be.

The gentleman behind the counter disappeared for a few minutes and returned to tell me that the manager said that I couldn’t return the book because the Barnes & Noble where the book had been purchased was owned by “different management.” I didn’t accept that response and asked to speak to the manager. As we waited, I mentioned that the policy was asinine and said that I couldn’t imagine why they would risk losing a customer over something so trivial. He agreed and added, “It’s above my pay grade.”

A few minutes later, the manager emerged, clearly agitated, and again told me that the Barnes & Noble store where the book was bought was under different ownership, but that she would give me a credit for the lowest price that the book had sold for at that store. She couldn’t have been any more unpleasant. I left the store with the credit and a $50 gift certificate that I had intended to spend at Barnes & Noble that day after returning my book but didn’t.

At a time when it has never been more important to satisfy customers, the two experiences got me thinking about how many stores and businesses have policies, procedures and practices that not only fail to serve the customer well but that may, in fact, alienate them.

Lest we become too obsessed with the changing dynamics in retail and the ever-present specter of online shopping, we would do well to take a hard look at what we are doing in our own places of business.

However well-intentioned they might be, what practices do we have that might not be serving our customers or our employees? I received a credit of $17 for that book. For an employee to have to tell me that making a decision on something like that was “above my pay grade” is a sad indictment of that business.

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore wrote in their book The Experience Economy” that, “To truly differentiate themselves, business must focus first on increasing customer satisfaction, then on eliminating customer sacrifice, and finally on creating customer surprise.”

We have an opportunity every day to deliver customer satisfaction. There ought to be precious few occasions where a customer should ever feel like he or she is having to make a sacrifice to patronize a business, and as for creating customer surprise … well, if you can figure that one out, that’s where the rubber really meets the road.

Ask yourself what arcane polices you might have in place at your store that are clearly not customer-friendly.

And then honestly ask yourself: Are your people empowered to make a decision and do the right thing for your customers?

Peter Smith is president of Vibhor, a public speaker and author of “Sell Something” and “Hiring Squirrels.” He spent 30 years building sales teams in retail and wholesale and he can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

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