When I hear people talk about Pittsburgh, they will often say how friendly the people are. In the year or so I’ve lived here, I’ve generally found that to be true. Save for being yelled at (in yinzer) by a security guard who thought I was trying to park illegally and who continued to yell at me after I pointed out I was a customer of the parking lot’s owner, individual people have been pretty nice. When I moved to San Francisco, I was surprised to discover that people in a city were nice and personable, and it’s much the same here in Pittsburgh. It’s rare that someone is outright rude to your face here and you’re not a freak of nature if you’re chatty with the person next to you in line outside a concert. Granted, it gets taken to extremes in some cases (like the notorious “Pittsburgh Left”) but pretty much everyone I’ve met here has been kind and helpful on a personal level.
When it comes to business and customer relations things change quite a bit. It’s been my experience that Pittsburgh business owners are often not friendly when it comes to business and customer relations and from what I can tell, that doesn’t seem to bother many people here. (The area is also unfriendly to visitors or newcomers at a systems level, but I’ll save that for a different entry.) I don’t mean that the local governments aren’t interested in having businesses locate here or that they are hostile to business in general, I suspect that local governments very much want businesses to move here and stay. I’m talking about the sort of unfriendliness that results from impolite business behavior and not caring about your customers and even taking their business for granted.
A few examples of what I’ve experienced:
“Special order something I don’t normally stock? Why would I want to do that?”
I am unable to get anyone here in Pittsburgh to sell me a set of Medico locks. I don’t know if it’s because I only want three or if it’s because they have to be special ordered, but none of the locksmiths I’ve talked to have ever followed through on call backs. I’ve visited stores in person and left phone messages stating my clear intent and willingness to pay for the order in advance, but I still can’t find someone who wants to take my money. I had a similar experience trying to order office furniture — the local store was the only authorized distributor, I knew exactly what I wanted, was willing to pay in advance, and yet it took almost a month to simply place an order. If there’s a concern about returned items, it’s trivial to charge a restocking or return fee, or to simply say that no returns are allowed on special orders.
“I decided to take a long holiday on short notice, hope that wasn’t a problem.”
The local Mail Boxes Etc closed down for all of the Thanksgiving weekend without giving what I consider a quite reasonable one week notice. Of course they’ll be closed on Thanksgiving, but closed on Friday and Saturday as well? Many businesses are open Friday (including mine) and many of us work on Saturdays. I use MBE so I can have expensive items shipped overnight and “signature required” and not have to worry about missing the delivery because I was in the shower or out on an errand. When I see that the MBE has signed for something, it’s trivial to run over and pick it up a few minutes later. Right now I have several packages waiting for me, at least one of which I needed for work over this weekend. Had I known the MBE was going to be closed over the holidays, I’d have made other delivery arrangements. (And had I known they did this sort of thing before I rented my box, I’d probably have rented a box from someone else, someone willing to keep reasonable business hours.)
This has also happened with sales reps a couple of times — I’m told I’ll get a quote in the next day or two, then three or four days later I call back to discover that the rep has gone on vacation. Either it’s not worth the bother to get me the quote before they leave or they just take it for granted I’m going to buy from them no matter what.
“Yeah, I can do that.” Weeks pass. “You know, I haven’t gotten around to that yet.”
Business cards are easy, especially when the customer has InDesign/EPS files all ready to go. Yet, somehow, it took me 4+ weeks to get a local shop to make my cards. I could have gone to Minuteman/Kinkos, but I really wanted to support a local shop. I got all sorts of great explanations for why my cards were delayed, but they never came with firm dates or offers of a discount. The only reason I didn’t cancel the order and go somewhere else is that I wanted to see how long it could possibly take someone to print a simple set of business cards.
“Customer Service? We don’t carry that.”
I’ve had several really poor customer interactions with locally owned and operated businesses and I think it’s because customers here have lowered their expectations far below the national norm. Having to repeatedly call a business to find out if they can sell me something is apparently not terribly unusual here, nor is waiting for a sales rep to end their personal conversation and find out how it is they can help me. When I complained to a business owner that their employees trashed the job site and that I spent the better part of an hour cleaning up their garbage (cigarette buts, soda cups, etc), I expected someone would call me back and at least apologize. Sure, they already got my money and I signed off on the work, but does it occur to them that they might want me for a future reference?
Here’s the thing that makes me really cranky about this — before I moved out here I only sat foot in a national store as a last resort. I’m used to crappy customer service from chains and national stores, and excellent customer service from locally owned businesses. I’d always go to local hardware, metal and lumber suppliers before going to Home Depot, Airgas, Graybar, or Grainger. I didn’t mind paying a few percent more if it supported a locally owned and operated business and the service was typically better than I’d get from some place where I was just a customer number. But given the negative experiences I’ve been having with locally owned businesses I’m starting to think I might be happier as a faceless customer account number with a national chain.
This isn’t to say that all my experiences with local businesses have been bad. I’ve had many good experiences with local businesses and trades, but all of the significantly negative experiences have been with locally owned outfits who really don’t seem to care much about getting or keeping my business. It’s gotten to the point where I now assume I’ll deal with a national or regional business when I need something, and that’s not an assumption I like making. When I start buying welding consumables in the near future, I want to support a local business, but I’m ready for the reality that I might be driving past many locally owned shops on my way to Airgas.
So what’s the fix?
I don’t know that there is a “fix” for people being inconsiderate or unfriendly. How do you convince someone to be friendly or professional other than by setting a good example? For my specific problems, there are a few things that might make me feel better, but will those things really improve things for their other customers and businesses? Will complaining to MBE’s corporate office do anything other than piss off the people who own the local franchise? If I call up a business’s owner at home and say, “Hey, I wrote a letter to your company about your employees trashing a job site, why didn’t anyone respond?”, is that really going to accomplish anything? I’ll probably contact Medico and ask them to put me in touch with a locksmith who actually wants to sell me a set of locks, but what if they point me at the people who already don’t want my business? Do I rat them out to Medico or just find a locksmith in a nearby town?
One thing I am considering is letting local businesses know why I’m not dealing with them any longer and instead going with a national chain or mail order. On the chance that the owner is interested in keeping me as a customer they’ll have a chance to fix the situation, or maybe once they see how much money they could have made on a sale they’ll be more attentive to future requests.
I keep hearing people say that Pittsburgh has a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities for new business. I used to think that simply meant real estate and labor were cheap, but now I’m thinking it might also be a polite way of saying something more subtle: “There are a lot of opportunities here because your competition probably isn’t very interested in working to get customers and keep them happy. All you have to do is keep the doors open and treat the customers well and you’ll succeed.”