Just like you don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge customers

Appearances can be deceiving and businesses should not judge customers by the way they look, by their age or nationality – treat everyone as potential clients.

Last week I read a story that struck a chord. Some time ago, the British soccer player, Wayne Rooney, walked into a real estate agent’s office dressed down in jeans and a hoodie. The receptionist made the assumption that he was not able to afford buying a property and didn’t treat Rooney as a potential customer. Rooney, who is believed to be worth upwards of $60 million and ranks among the world’s highest paid athletes, was more than able to afford buying a property and in fact did so.

A year ago I witnessed something a relatively similar incident. I was checking in at a high end hotel during a business trip when a young man, probably in his early 20s, walked in wearing torn jeans, a sweater that seemed not to have been washed for quite a while, and carrying a rucksack. Security guards I hadn’t noticed before suddenly appeared in the lobby and I could see the receptionists look at each other as if they were expecting problems. I remember one reception clerk asking whether she could help and the young man slid a black Amex card on the desk. Suddenly, the attitude shifted and he was no longer treated, although silently, as a persona non grata.

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies are still making the mistake of judging customers by their appearance and if frontliners don’t like what they see, they definitely don’t keep it to themselves. It is one of my major pet peeves and I always ask why the way a customer is dressed or look should determine how he’s treated.

Unfortunately this happens relatively regularly even with me when I was looking to buy an apartment or simply needed a new battery for my watch. It was hot and humid and I was wearing very simple t-shirt, trousers and slippers. I might not have been dressed like someone who was going to drop a decent amount of cash, in fact I wasn’t, but I didn’t expect to be completely ignored when I walked in at the retailer store. Yet, nobody bothered to ask whether I needed help until the security guard walked towards me and asked: “Do you need anything?” My first instinct was to snap a sarcastic comment back, but resisted and just told him what I was in the store for. I was told that particular outlet didn’t have the facility to change a battery and they would need to send the watch elsewhere, which would take a number of weeks. It was only when I asked why a simple battery change would take such a long time that I was given an alternative option, I could take it to their other store. The only thing I wasn’t told was that the store would be closing in 30 minutes and I should hurry if I wanted to get there on time.

My question is, would things have been different had I been better dressed? I decided to test this theory the following day when I returned to the second store. It’s difficult to judge since they were different outlets, but at no point did I get the feeling that I was not welcomed.

But the issue remains that appearances can be deceiving, as the first two stories show. And in a competitive market, where many customers are using brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms, can retailers or real estate companies afford to lose a potential sale even if from a one-time customer? And can they risk alienating today’s one-time customer and lose all future potential business?

The real estate agent learned from the mistake that could have lost the company a commission and today makes sure to train all staff not to be deceived by appearances. Frankly, I think this should be a common courtesy offered to another human being, but at least they are taking action. More companies should follow this.

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