Saturday, 6 June 2009

Local Small Businesses: the Pros and Cons

We hear a lot these days about the horrors of globalisation and the way in which big chain stores and brand names destroy local businesses and create “clone towns”.

Well, in an attempt to do a little to avert this and so that any post-sale problems were only a telephone call and a short ride away, we have for many years patronised a local electrical shop. To this end, we have a house full of their AV equipment; so does my mother; and so does my mother-in-law.

Last week, we bought a new freezer from them and everything seemed to be going well. Until Wednesday that was, when the thing suddenly started sounding an alarm and flashing its lights like R2D2 on Ecstasy.

A quick call to the shop connected me initially with a sales assistant who eventually gave us instructions to turn off the alarm and then promised to organise an engineer.

“Great,” I thought, “this is why it’s better to use a local firm.”

Ten minutes later, a woman calls me from the regional service agent for the large manufacturer of said freezer. Sounding monotone and automated and sprinkling her conversation with jargon, she ‘informed’ me that they would send an engineer (great)…….next Monday (not great with a freezer full of food).

Being me, I told her that this wasn’t acceptable and she flatly (and without a hint of regret, sorrow or apology) said Monday it is. I told her that this was “one stage removed from ‘Computer says no’…….and she hung up.

It is an increasing technique in what passes for a service industry in this country that people being challenged or criticised hide behind the “I don’t have to take rudeness” excuse when no rudeness is given, merely disagreeing and asking for something better.

Needles to say, I called straight back (no they didn’t withhold their number) and spoke to the manager. Indeed, he turned out to be the owner of the company, or so he claimed. Perhaps realising that I wasn’t going to be deflected from getting what I wanted, he became very defensive. To be somewhat immodest, he wasn’t much of a match for me in the verbal reasoning department, trying the same “you can’t talk to us like that” tack when all I was doing was telling him what he needed to do. In particular, I was worried about the contents of the freezer, a subject he deliberately tried to avoid; sadly for him, I am very good at posing “closed” questions and trapping people into saying things that are (a) true and (b) not what the questioner wants to admit. Realising this was going nowhere, I ended the call and returned to dealing with the shop.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the shop tried very hard to deal with the problem, including making a very apologetic call before closing time to say they were trying to get another engineer or to arrange a swap. (Annoyingly, they insisted on using the jargonistic term “uplift” when “swap” or “replacement” would have been better.)

Problem for the shop was…….they didn’t have engineers skilled in the subject of freezers. Television, DVDs: yes. Freezers: no.

So the moral of this story? It’s all very well to use a local shop…….but when something goes wrong, they themselves might not be able to solve the problem because they don’t have the knowledge or the resources. Yes, if I’d gone to a chain store I’d still have been dealing with Computer Says No woman and Puffed Up Little Businessman with their “we do it like this attitude”; but at least I’d have paid less for the appliance in the first place.

After further pressure from me first thing, they did eventually send out a member of staff from the shop (the salesman himself) early this morning. Within seconds he identified the problem (to do with where the freezer is located) and the difficulty was resolved. If only they’d done that the previous afternoon, the shop wouldn’t have lost all their future business from us. Pity that. For them.

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