This past weekend, I was out of the store on a co-consulting job, meeting with some colleagues and helping out another small business owner in the retail packing and shipping industry assess their business, find areas of improvement and growth, and decide where and when to expand. Not 10 minutes after our appointment began, while in the middle of introductions and what-to-expect-from-the-day overviews, I got a text from one of my team members back at my home business, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, that said, “Wendy was expecting her packing costs to be lower and wants to know if the prices have gone up.”
I should have just responded quickly and quietly, telling my coworker that I’d look into it on Monday; that at that moment I needed to focus on my colleagues and our consulting client in front of me. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I got all hot and bothered, wrongly excused myself from our client for a few minutes while I anxiously pecked away at my phone, and snidely responded with, “Wendy has gotten a deal for years. She pays way less than a regular person and I’ve been trying to bring her up to speed slowly. She’s still below what we should charge. She is very price sensitive and if it’s an issue she’s welcome to pack her artwork herself. If she wants Uncle Marty’s service, she can pay Uncle Marty’s prices.”
I was irritated—not at my team member, but at Wendy. I hadn’t read her email and the only context I knew about her outreach was what my team member texted. I just assumed it was the result of a snippy email from her, once again upset about the price as she has been all too often in the past.
You see, Wendy is a local artist. She does ceramic tableware pieces and wall art and, by all accounts, does very well with it, selling some of her ceramic mugs for prices in the hundreds of dollars and some of her wall hangings for prices in the thousands of dollars. We deal with a lot of local artists and are highly favored and recommended in that community. It’s a lot of fun and we go out of our way to care for those relationships…and build our business as a result.
But we didn’t acquire Wendy’s business because of our network of artists or a recommendation from one of her peers. Instead, we inherited Wendy from a similar packing and shipping store near us that shut down. Because we had a good-neighbor relationship with that store, they very kindly recommended to all of their clients and guests that they transfer their business to us. We were so grateful for that classy move, putting their clients above competition and making sure they would be taken care of after their business shut down, and made a lot of new friends in our city as a result.
The thing is, that store’s model attracted more of a budget clientele, and their rates reflected that. Resultingly, we had a big challenge on our hands: training new guests who had previously done business there to the more premium rates at our store—fair rates, but ones that reflect the fact that you get what you pay for. We have always made it a policy to compete on service, not price. And our service and team quality are—unabashedly—the best. Regardless, Wendy was trained by that other more budget-targeted business that it costs just four dollars to pack a ceramic mug: box, materials, and packing service included. Yes, that’s right. That other store was charging just four dollars! For similar service, our retail rate at Uncle Marty’s would be at least four times that.
Against my better judgement, I gave in and said we’d make a special deal with Wendy and honor that four-dollar-per-mug price for a little while. She had alluded to a large volume of shipments and I thought maybe we could make up for it in a fulfillment type of pricing model rather than an individual piece price structure. But, to add insult to injury for my mistake of allowing that four-dollar price, we also soon realized with the first batch she brought in that not only did she expect to pay just four dollars per mug to pack, but she also then refused to use our shipping service and instead sent us prepaid labels she created herself online. It was akin to going to a restaurant and bringing your own food, but still expecting the wait staff to serve you. But she didn’t get that. She’d been trained very differently.
Now, I must also mention that this all happened very quickly at the start of the pandemic when that store closed with very little warning. Our business, on the other hand, was booming and had just been designated as an essential business. So, not only were we trying to keep our team and guests healthy and safe, but we were also dealing with an increase in regular demand for our services on top of the influx of new guests from that nearby store that had just shut down. In trying to do right by all of those new contacts and hopefully welcome many of them to our business as new clients, I made quick decisions I would normally have taken more time to consider.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve never been Wendy’s biggest fan. From that initial interaction and her issues with our rates—not initially understanding or appreciating our level of service that substantiated those rates—and what felt like, at the very least, a significant miscommunication on the type of business she’d be giving us, I’ve let myself get flustered and upset every time I see her name or hear that she’s reached out to us. I’ve had personality clashes with her in the past, felt very condescended to, and after she snubbed me quite publicly once at a gallery opening, have had a general distaste for her for years.
Because of my inherent anxiety trigger every time I hear her name, I was distracted by the thought of her email and how I was going to respond to it the entire day of consulting and ashamedly not giving my full attention to the client in front of us that my colleagues and I had each traveled quite a distance early that morning to meet at their warehouse, see their business in person, and dedicate a day of service to in trying to give them some coaching from our own experience. I kept telling myself, “Don’t let it bother you. Wendy does not have permission to bogart your brain today. Just deal with it on Monday.” But yet, I fumed on it all day, lost sleep that night, and had no interest in coming in on Monday to read her email and create a response to it.
As I’m prone to do, I had a migraine as a result of being anxious about Wendy’s email most of the day Sunday and still on Monday morning when I made it to my office and checked for her email in the inbox. I just knew in my overthinking-it brain that it would be negative, that it was going to upset me, and that I’d have to really bite my tongue and find some sort of grace in writing a response. I just knew it, deep down in my gut.
But her email wasn’t in the inbox Monday morning. I asked my coworker who had first received it on Saturday where it was and if he had any further contact from her and he told me that he had already responded. Sure enough, there it was in the archives and my team member had once again blown me out of the water with his professionalism, clarity, and diligence in the response he had given.
My first wrongness about Wendy was in assuming her email was negative and accusatory. It was none of those things. It was in fact quite pleasant and cordial! She was just surprised by the rate and wondered if our rates had gone up again. You see, I’ve been gradually increasing her pricing for years and am slowly getting closer and closer to a regular retail rate with her, and for this last job I did charge her more than the one before it, but still less than I would anyone else. So, she legitimately would question why her art packing cost more this time than it did last time. Her shockingly pleasant email was just her being curious as to what the current rates she should expect are so that she can accommodate for that in her retail to her clients. My coworker had responded quite correctly and politely and she, in turn, sent a big, happy thank you. It was so refreshing!
Just as she had been initially trained to expect a low price from a packaging business, I had been trained to expect a complaint from her. But, over the years, it seems that she’s successfully had a mindset shift and now expects to pay a reasonable rate and is cool with it as long as she knows what to expect. We’ve gained her trust and established a relationship where she knows that we’re not out to get her; that our rates are quite fair and that she’s getting exactly what she’s paying for: the best service anywhere. She’s fully empowered to go somewhere else for a lower rate, but she continues to come to us because of the value we provide. She’s transformed from a penny pincher to our exact target client: one who values our service, plain and simple.
But I had not retrained my impression of her, and for that I was very wrong. In reflection, the last few interactions I’ve had with her have been positive ones. She’s been very happy and grateful for our service…and I think I even saw her smile once! But, in my mind, I was still trained to be on the defensive and to expect a complaint. I was wrong. She’s turned out to be a different person than the villain I made her out to be in my mind and I need to work on retraining my own mind to not let the thought of her trigger me into a spiral of just wishing she’d go away.
I was wrong about Wendy. I’m sorry about that and, though for years in my coaching and consulting have hammered away at the importance of relationship-based business models, still thought of Wendy in a transactional manner. She’s proven to me now that people can change and come around to see the value, but in order for that to happen one must consistently and clearly show that value and earn that trust.
My team has, I’m so proud to say, earned Wendy’s trust. I am so incredibly proud of them for that and for the consistency and integrity and confidence they show in the service we provide. If we can do this, we can do anything, and the future is incredibly bright.
This essay is slated to be published in MBC Today Volume 25 Issue 6 on or around November 2, 2023.