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?
Mithra Ballesteros says
Excellent post, Abby. Love the connection you made between two very different worlds. I always try to put a face with an email or an order. I imagine someone I know and care about is actually the customer. I imagine them sitting at their computer with a cup of coffee or a diet coke, reaching out to me. This silly visualization keeps me from being bummed out by the anonymity of Internet commerce. Plus it’s fun!
I love that technique!
I love it! maybe this is why I read your blog and listen to your podcast, even though I’m not really interested in stuffies and don’t own a business…
I really do love my customers! I didn’t have a good idea of who they were until I went to Stupid Cancer’s OMGEast convention. I got to see, talk with and hug my “ideal customers” and then add them as a friend on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. Doing that show and actually seeing the “aha” moment when someone picks up one of my stuffed organs has changed my marketing for the better.
Jody Herbert says
Great blog post Abby! And it is so true too!
Carolyn Jenkins says
Another great post and wonderful comments ! You asked “How do you feel about the people you’re serving” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately with the holiday rush. It seems like there is more anxiety in the air.
I really care about our customers and want to make sure they get what they need. Sometimes they need information, sometimes they have special requests. for certain colors or sizes, a product that is new or different or has not even been created yet. I try to convey that I care through e-mails and phone calls. It takes time and energy. I actually took a few online education courses that incorporated information about improving online interpersonal communication.
Caring is hard work. People that care are vulnerable to compassion fatigue. Sometimes if I start to feel some resentment toward a customer, I recognize that I am starting to get that “compassion fatigue”. I need to take a break and take care of myself. 😉 I Care about my customers and want them to be successful with their creative endeavors. Carolyn from GlassEyesOnLine
I love the idea that caring is hard work because it certainly is. It means being helpful when you don’t feel like it and being nice when someone is not being nice back. It is definitely work at times!
Teresa Duryea Wong says
I am one of those customers “blog readers and podcast listener” whom you have helped by returning my email! I hope I said thank you. If I did not, I am saying it now. You are awesome! And I find your content some of the most interesting stuff out there in the blogoshpere right now! Thank you for being so thoughtful.
Thanks so much, Teresa!
Rebecca Grace says
Abby, I love this post! I never made the connection before between teaching and customer service. Thinking of students as “customers” of their teachers is a very interesting concept. I have two middle school students, a 6th grader and an 8th grader, and it’s true — their favorite teachers and favorite classes are the ones where the teacher goes out of his or her way to engage the class and make learning fun. They really do love the teachers best who love the students best!
And as far as small businesses are concerned in general, and in the sewing/quilting industry in particular, I would argue that customer service is the biggest determinant in which businesses ultimately succeed or fail, and the biggest opportunity for especially independent quilt shop owners and sewing machine dealers to build a more loyal following and increase their profitability. It always seems to be the companies with the WORST customer service who complain that their customers only care about bargains and deals. That should be a huge red flag to the business owner that they are not adding any value to the merchandise they are selling — when your customers “feel the love,” they will go out of their way to support your business, will want to visit your shop just because they are greeted by name and it feels good to shop there, and they will tell others about you as well.
Happy Holidays, Abby!
Ann Tomlin says
As a retired educator of 35 years service who still loves to learn I read everything you write and have available on your website.
This post was especially important because relationships between the customer and the business owner are paramount . Today’s
sewists who want to make quality gifts and projects must make important decisions about whom they will support and why. To
know that the business I choose does their research, tests their products, surveys their customers, adds new patterns, attends programs
and seminars themselves to improve their business shows me that they care — about themselves, their business/products, me and the
projects I do , and being part of the fiber art community at large.Your work plus my work brings happiness to others and that’s a deal that money can’t buy. It’s why I support you and others like you and always will. Creativity and caring is hard work but the joy it
brings and always has brought me has been worth every ounce of effort. Thank you for caring , quality and joy!!!!!!!
A few years ago the owner of a quilt shop started an anonymous twitter account called something like, “dumb things customers say”. It absolutely blew my mind that anyone would even think it, let alone go there in public. It didn’t last long, but I’ll always hold it up as an example of an entrepreneur who didn’t deserve the customers she had.
I remember that feed! It did seem odd. A sign that you’re in the wrong field is when you really dread dealing with your clients or customers.
Such a great post and so true! I didn’t feel quite this way when cutting & shipping orders but I sure do love my quilting students when I teach, so that tells me I’m in the right spot!
Susan the farm quilter says
Everyone wants to be appreciated and important to someone. By taking the time to interact as personally as possible with customers and readers, you are letting them know that they are important to you and appreciated by you. Smart!! I loved my students and still think of them (even keep in touch with some of them) even though I have been retired almost 10 years. Merry Christmas and may all your efforts be rewarded in the new year.
Thanks, Susan. Merry Christmas to you!