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Badly Done

My original intention was to devote this column to leadership and how the old rules no longer apply. Then again, neither do the new ones (circa late '90s). So what's an entrepreneur to do? Well, I got sidetracked (I'll get there in a moment), so if you want to find out how to lead your business to increased success, read "Lead the Way."

Now for what distracted me. I have often heard entrepreneurs decrying their larger (much larger) competitors for stealing their business. We have long advocated that one way to fight back is to provide what the big guys don't. That can be more convenient hours, personalized services, customer communication or a generous return policy. Or it could be as simple as good, old-fashioned customer service.

The other day, I read an article about Home Depot having a disappointing year. The article suggested that service at the stores was suffering. I can attest to that. Last year, executive editor Maria Anton and I went to a Home Depot with her three daughters (at the time, 5 years, 2 1/2 years and 1 month old) looking for samples of crown molding. When we finally located the department, it took forever to find someone to "help" us. Help is in quotes, because this employee, when asked for assistance, merely pointed to the wood pieces and told Maria (who had her newborn in her arms) to "cut it yourself." We subsequently went to a local lumberyard, Ganahl Lumber, which not only offered free, precut samples, but where we found an employee who was more than happy to assist us.

Or how about this one? Last week, it took executive editor Karen Axelton seven conversations and several visits to Lowe's to buy doorknobs. Phone calls were not returned, information that should have been in the computer wasn't, and a process that should have taken minutes instead took many hours spread over six days to complete.

But the capper of my rant on poor customer service happened in late January. One of our contributing writers was researching an upcoming piece about Martha Stewart wannabes. She called the E! network in New York looking for a PR contact for Katie Brown (have you heard of her?), a Gen Y seeker of the crown who apparently appears on E!'s Style network. Remember how we often tell you every person on your staff is crucial to your success, from you to the receptionist? Well E! apparently doesn't believe that. Or they don't care. Our writer asked for the PR department and was told by the receptionist that E! "doesn't give out the names of its PR people." At the receptionist's command, the writer then went online searching for Katie's Brown's PR contact and came up blank.

Undaunted, our intrepid reporter called E!'s Los Angeles office, where the phone was answered by the very same receptionist, who barked, "I remember you!" into the phone and told the reporter she needed to fax her information to E! and "someone might get back to you." Our writer's plea for an e-mail address fell on deaf ears. (After days of persistence, our writer finally found one helpful staff member at E!) I won't get into how stupid it is to pay for a PR department that the press can't contact. But if you're not familiar with Katie Brown, now you know why.

They say dissatisfied customers tell about 12 other people about their bad experiences. Well, I just told about 2 million of you. That's how the word spreads. There is no excuse for this type of behavior at businesses of any size. And while none of these incidents occurred at entrepreneurial establishments, I've heard enough horror stories to know that too many of you are not serving your customers and clients well. Are you one of the guilty? Poll your customers. Shop your business (or have a friend do it). You need to find out before it's too late.

Of course, not all businesses are like these. In January, I was visiting our New York office, where Entrepreneur publisher Carrie Fitzmaurice and I were working late. At 9:30, we realized we hadn't eaten, and Carrie called Sunny East, a local Chinese restaurant to see if they were still open. They said the kitchen had closed, but if we got there within 10 minutes (easy to do in NYC), they'd be happy to serve us. Hear that? Happy to serve us. A practice well worth emulating.

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This article was originally published in the March 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Badly Done.

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