How to Lose a Lifelong Customer in 15 Minutes

West Music, Coralville, Iowa Tuesday, January 19, 2016 14:38


A group of giggling teenage girls, and one boy, hanging out in the acoustic guitar room. With all of them there, the already cramped, very humid room (winter in Iowa after all) seems even smaller.

I quickly survey the selections...I'm looking for a nylon string electric acoustic, and don't see anything that grabs my attention immediately, but I do see several guitars from a brand I'm not very familiar with. I gravitate towards the one with the signs attached "Please ask before handling me." Price ranges between $3000 and $6000.

I decide to wait out the teenagers somewhere else. Guess I'll browse the other parts of the store.

The price of the American made Fender Strat Standard has almost doubled since I bought my first Strat Plus back in the early 90's. What do you know?

Not a whole lot in the way of recording equipment here...some nice ukes to look at. One guy jamming on the electronic kits in the drum room...

Accessories are fun to look at...wait...

I was going to ask someone about that brand of guitars but I one's said a word to me since I entered the store.

Two guys working in this part of the store. One is at a computer with studio headphones on, the other is doing various things, including ducking around a blind corner from his colleague to make a call on his cell phone.

No one has given any indication that they see I am even there...and physically speaking, I'm pretty hard to miss.

When I first came to this store, West Music's flagship store, in 1991, I met a man named Merril Birchmeier. A kind and soft spoken man, it was his knowledge and guidance that led me to buy my first guitar, less than a month before my 17th birthday.

Over the next few years, we got to know each other a bit, and for a long time, I wouldn't buy my guitars from anyone but Merril. He once let me play a special edition Martin that was selling for $10,000. Amazing instrument! In the early 90's, in the middle of Iowa, playing a $10,000 was a pretty big deal.

He showed me a $20,000 Martin special edition. He said he couldn't let me play it, because it had already been sold, but he played it a little so I could hear it...and a divine presence washed over me. The warm, rich sound just oozed out of that instrument. That day, I truly understood the value of being able to command an instrument of that quality. That's why I chuckle now when someone says, "But I got this guitar for $80 online!"

There is a difference.

Over those few years, I spent a lot of money in that store. I always asked for Merril, and was always welcomed warmly and taken care of.

I realized today, that those days are gone.

The people working in this particular West Music, this flagship store, on this day, don't even say "hello."

This sounds like some sort of entitlement rant. It's not.

This is not one of those "Do you know who I am? I've spent a lot of money here and I deserve to be treated as such!"

That's not my style.

This is about simple customer service. This is about a large, quiet man, browsing every section of a store for no less than 15 minutes...and no one even acknowledges his presence.

To clarify, besides the teenage jam and giggles session in the closed door acoustic room, there were no other customers.

Now when I go to the West Music in my home town, I know people there. Even when I don't know anyone working there, the staff is helpful and engaging.

Sure, most of us enjoy a Cheers-like atmosphere when we go into a favorite store. At my hometown West Music, when one of my college friends worked there, every time I walked in, she would yell out (in a dignified and professional way) my nickname.

I didn't expect that today. These people don't know me. They don't know the financial contributions I've made to their employer for the last couple of decades.

But in this day of high tech, social media life where we're forgetting how to write intelligibly and carry on face to face conversations, customer service is even more important. It's paramount.

There was a time when I would look forward to coming to this particular store. I doubt I'll be back.

I'll head on over to Guitar Center...they say "hi" there.