A trendspotting firm recently asked me if I had any insights to share regarding customer service in a recession. No need for my second hand opinion - just stand in line anywhere in the city and you'll witness some elementary customer service blunders - in a time when companies can ill afford them.
A big area of opportunity - and also sales sabotage - is how businesses treat coupon clippers or, "here come the voucher people." I guarantee that in this recession, coupon clipping is second only to Sudoku and burning valuable job hunting hours surfing YouTube. Reflect for a nanosecond on the psychology of coupon redemption: the coupon holder experiences a curious mixture of anticipation, entitlement, and at the same time self-consciousness and even guilt about getting something for nothing. Understand this delicate interplay, and you're in a better position to convert them to repeat customers after they cross your theshold. Reporting from the guinea pig'ss chair:
Example 1: A local hairdressing salon offers free haircuts. Its staff called and begged me to be at the salon in 15 minutes, so a student could practice on my unruly mop and thus 'graduate'. Although I had plans for the day, I decided to spring for it, and was told I'd get two free products and the taxi fare paid if I arrived on their doorstep in 15 minutes flat. I did as instructed, got the cut, and passed by the front desk – as instructed.
"That's it?" I ventured.
"That's it," said the counter staff. Freeze frame – moment of self-consciousness and unfulfilled expectation.
"Um, I was told I would get some product for rearranging my day at a moment's notice," I mumbled. Freeze frame – now in begging mode.
"Oh yeah .... " The assistant proceeded to robotically and listlessly point out the offerings from the shelf, but I got the distinct impression she'd rather be back posing behind the counter.
I did get my freebies - but oh, how awkward! Did I feel special? Not at all. "What do you expect for a free haircut? To be treated like royalty?" crossed my mind.
Lesson: Make sure your staff are forewarned and ready to worship customers who enable you to be paid. Spare customers the ignominy of begging for their gifts – if I leave feeling bad, I'm not going back for more, and I'll just forget about recommending you, because that's what we do.
Example 2: I got a free coupon for a burrito at a promotion evening for local businesses. I presented it at the restaurant, a chain whose branches always seems strangely empty. The server behind the counter stared at my coupon like it was a severed head.
"Where did you get that?" she said.
"At the "Yelp Passport to Chelsea" event."
"I can't read the signature ... MAAAAARRRRTTTTAAA!!!!"
She hands the coupon back to me and goes about her business.
"Uh, don't you need to take this?" I ask.
"Yes, you first have to go down there." She thrusts her chin towards the start of the burrito birthing chamber.
I slunk down to that area feeling that familiar, odd sense of freebie-guilt as I pointed to the various ingredients making up my burrito. They were listlessly tossed into place. Was the server giving me "voucher person" 'tude? I asked if I could have a teaspoon of another ingredient.
"That'll be extra."
Lesson: Again, make sure your staff are fully informed of promotions, so coupon clippers experience nothing short of "Thank you so much for coming to try us out".
And, when all the coupons have been clipped, remember the good old-fashioned tactic of simply, following up.
Example 3: A financial analyst called me up and right off the bat, impressed me with his warmth and connection. He knew a lot about the company I work for, and showed a great deal of interest in my life. We talked for about an hour. I emailed him information that he requested. He promised he'd get back to me.
I didn't hear from him straight away. Or even later that day. Or the next day. My mind, busy with more important things, nevertheless started gnawing away at the fabulous impression he'd left. Why he's almost as good as a card-carrying Customer Evangelist at taking a genuine interest in people's lives. As more days passed, I started thinking, how pseudo-empathetic he was. More days pass. I send another email, and still no response. He's now mud, a con-man. Or, maybe he had an accident and is lying in hospital with one plastered leg pointing at the ceiling? Turns out, he'd gotten married and gone on his honeymoon.
Lesson: Follow up. All this gentleman had to do was shoot me an email saying "Enjoyed the conversation, let me work on your data and I'll get back to you." Or at the very least, simple auto-response message would have halted my imagineering.
So yes, go forth and sprinkle your coupons like fairy dust, for they will be gathered up with zeal by all and sundry - regardless of economic standing - especially in this recession. Just don't sabotage your investment - handle coupon clippers with dignity and grace. It's part of the old adage of paying attention to the details, to correctly feed and water that precious customer base you've spent a lifetime growing.
The Galfromdownunder  clips coupons with the best of them in order to tell stories like this.