In 2003 I was teaching 6th grade social studies at a middle school in Newton, Massachusetts. I was part of a team of four teachers, each in a different subject area. Three of us were women in our 20’s and the fourth was a man in his late 50’s named Lou. A year away from retirement, Lou was a big, burly guy who commuted in from a distant suburb. He’d been teaching English to 12-year-olds for over 25 years and, frankly, his classes weren’t all that rigorous. He didn’t stick closely to the curriculum. He hadn’t adopted the newer, more interactive teaching methods. His class was…sorta boring.
But here’s the thing. The kids loved Lou. They ran to his classroom in the morning to hang out before school. When they were upset, they went to him for advice. They begged to be in his homeroom.
I couldn’t understand it. Here we were, three young teachers implementing all latest ideas about how kids learn, working so hard to make our classrooms inviting and interactive, and yet this old-school guy was everyone’s favorite teacher.
In December of that year I was out for drinks with a friend from graduate school and I told her about the situation. “I don’t get it,” I complained. “Why do the kids love Lou?”
She looked at me and said, “Does he love them?”
That question changed me forever.
The answer, of course, was yes. Lou loved those kids. Given a choice to spend time with anyone in the world, Lou would have chosen to be with a group of 26 12-year-olds. It wasn’t that I didn’t like teaching, because I did, but not in the way that Lou did. He loved those kids, and they knew it and loved him right back.
I left the classroom a year later and, over time, became a sewing pattern designer, a career that’s very different from what I trained to do, but I often think back to that realization I had about Lou. Now, of course, I don’t have 26 12-year-olds looking up at me every morning, waiting for a lesson about ancient Mesopotamia, but I do have a group of people whom I interact with every day: my customers.
Every morning when I turn on my computer there are emails waiting for me from customers (and within the category of “customers” of my business I include blog readers and podcast listeners). On any given day the mix of messages includes:
- a thank you for a particularly helpful blog post
- a question about a step in a pattern that seems confusing
- a correction of a typo in my latest newsletter
- a request for combined shipping for a bundle of supplies
and many more. Sometimes these emails are carefully composed, beginning “Dear Abby,” and ending with a thank you and well wishes. Other times they are three words, all lower case, with no salutation.
Every morning I reply to all of the emails. I do my best to be thorough and helpful and timely in my responses. Sometimes composing these emails takes me a long time. I will take additional pictures of a sewing step to help someone through a tricky part of a pattern. I will do research to connect a customer to the resource they’re looking for. Sometimes we will go back and fourth three or four times until a problem is completely resolved.
About half the time these exchanges end with the customer saying thank you. The other half of the time I never hear from them again.
It’s possible, over time, to let these interactions wear you down, to start to resent your customers or even feel antagonistic toward them. In Facebook groups and on the Etsy forums you’ll read comments from sellers describing their customers as ungrateful and ignorant. “They don’t read.” “They just want a bargain.” “They don’t even bother to leave feedback.”
Here’s the thing. If you feel this way toward your customers, they come to know it. Even if on the face of things you’re polite, people can sense that deep down you’d rather they go away and, over time, they will.
If you’re in business to serve your customers you have to love doing just that, even when it feels thankless. You have to truly want them to succeed. When you see a business with a product that might seem rather run of the mill and an audience that’s incredibly devoted, this is most likely why.
The kids loved Lou because he loved them. How do you feel about the people you’re serving?