You can view an update to this post (and an update to my update) here.

In an economy where there’s lots of competition for a smaller and smaller number of dollars, good customer service becomes an issue of survival. While product is important, customer service can make the difference between creating a life-long customer and losing a loyal customer. I’m sure we’ve all heard those wonderful stories about Zappos refunding customers for shoes long after the final return date and Nordstrom refunding a customer for his snow tires (or was it chains?), an item they do not actually sell. It’s good experiences like that which make us loyal, even if their prices aren’t necessarily the lowest. I’ve had some great customer service experiences that have permanently wedded me to those companies or service people. I still get my hair cut by the same person (in FLORIDA!) who I’ve been going to for years. But just as good customer service can make people fiercely loyal, bad customer service can lose much more than a single sale.

Last night, I had a very bad experience with Pottery Barn Kids customer service, which I wrote about on my other blog. While the quality problems with the furniture definitely put a bad taste in my mouth, an accommodating and apologetic customer service response would have made up for it. By suggesting that I drill the holes they’d neglected to put into the furniture myself (holes that will make the difference between the changing table staying on the dresser or falling off of the dresser) instead of offering to replace everything at their expense, they lost me as a customer.

What I really wonder is if these companies understand what they’re losing when they do this. Sure, they’re saving money on delivering another dresser, but they’re losing a whole lot more. I’ve been a loyal customer of Pottery Barn since I first had a place to furnish. My home is practically a shrine to Pottery Barn — there’s no room that doesn’t have something Pottery Barn in it. I’m sure I’ve spent close to $10,000 there over the years and would have spent more than that over the course of my life. I was actually planning on replacing a good bit of the furniture over the next couple of years as some of it isn’t toddler-friendly, some of it is just getting old, and I will certainly need new stuff as my son grows. But now, they’ve lost me as a customer. Was that worth the money they saved in not offering to immediately replace everything?

When we provide bad customer service at our library, do we think about the long-term impact of that? Will that person come back? Will they ever use a library again or will they begin to see libraries as irrelevant in the digital age and much less worth supporting than their cozy Barnes and Noble or Borders? Perhaps this person will one day be mayor of your town and will not see much reason to support what they see as a dying institution. Perhaps this bad experience will lead them to one day write a letter in their local paper about the irrelevance of libraries. All it takes sometimes is one bad experience. On the other hand, when someone receives great customer service at their library, they will come out of the experience feeling like libraries are the bees knees. They will vote in the affirmative on bond issues that positively impact the library and will perhaps even join their local library’s Friends organization. At a very minimum, it will keep them coming back and loving libraries.

It’s not always about having the best or the fanciest or the techiest or the 2.0-iest stuff. Sometimes it’s as simple as creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued. Because in this economy, none of us can afford to lose our customers.