A Tale Of Two Princes

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Once upon a time, in a land, far, far away, a king was faced with a tough decision: Which of his two twin sons would rule his kingdom once he passed on? He decided to test them.

The king gave each son a province to rule for ten years. After ten years, he would come to visit them both, and the one whose province had blossomed the most would inherit his kingdom.

The first son built wonderous palaces and gardens and libraries for his subjects. Before long, people from surrounding provinces started to move there. His borders grew. So did his wealth. He built more and more libraries, bigger and bigger palaces, and the most extravagant gardens the world had ever seen.

The other son didn't build any new palaces. He didn't build any new libraries. He didn't build gardens. What he did instead was fix the old palaces that had been abandoned by the previous governors. He bought new books for his old libraries. He appointed the best teachers to the schools he also rebuilt, and sent his most compassionate knights to make sure that order and justice reigned from one end of his province to the other.

Ten years passed, and - as promised - the king visited his two sons.

When he arrived in his first son's province, he was astounded by what he saw: Everywhere he looked, he saw magnificent gardens, enormous palaces with golden spires and gem-encrusted walls, and more people running about than he had ever dreamed possible. He stepped away from his caravan to ask a farmer who all of these people were, where they had come from, and what they were doing there. The farmer, not recognizing the king, walked away without answering his questions. The king, outraged by the farmer's behavior, huffed back to his caravan and ordered it to move on.

A few hours later, he saw a young boy drinking from a well on the side of the road. He ordered his caravan to stop and sent one of his ministers to ask the boy the same questions he had asked the rude farmer earlier in the day. The boy rolled his eyes at the minister and shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "Go ask somebody else. I'm trying to get a drink."

The caravan moved on, and later that evening, it finally reached the first son's palace... Where it was refused entrance by the palace guards. The king stormed out of his carriage and demanded to see his son immediately. The guards refused. "We're sorry, sir. No one is allowed inside the palace without written authorization from the High Prince."

"But I am the King!"

"I'm sorry, sir. Our orders don't say anything about a king. There is nothing I can do for you now. You will have to come back tomorrow, when the Prince is awake."

Furious, the king ordered his caravan to press on through the night so that he might see the state of his second son's province by dawn. When he arrived there, he was sad to notice that in the ten years that his second son had been in power, he hadn't built any new palaces or gardens or libraries. As a matter of fact, the province looked exactly as the King remembered it. After an hour or so, the caravan passed some farmers tending to their fields, and they waved from a distance. Though his eyesight had grown dim in his later years, he could see the smiles on their faces, even in the distance.

By mid-morning, the caravan reached a small town. The king was about to order his caravan to stop so that the horses could be watered and fed, when he heard cheers up ahead. Curious to find out what was going on, he stuck his head out of his carriage and noticed a crowd of people up ahead. He hopped out of his carriage and was met by a dozen grinning children. "Welcome," they screamed. "Welcome to the King!"

The king was so touched by the way he was treated by the villagers of his second son's province that he spent an entire week there, enjoying their hosptality and bon vivant before returning to his own palace.

A fortnight passed, and he summoned his two sons. The first arrived bearing cartloads of wonderous treasures and some of the finest horses in all the land. The second came with flowers, musicians and fresh fruit. The king greeted them both with love, as he hadn't seen them in many years, and his heart ached at the thought of having to choose which of the two would rule in his place. But it needed to be done.

To them both, he said simply: "Your kingdom is your people. Whomever lives by these words is fit to be king."

To the first son, he gave half of his wealth and perpetual governorship of his province. To the second son, he gave the other half of his wealth and all of the lands of his kingdom to rule in his place.

If that little tale didn't make much sense, try this on for size:

For the past week, I have been on the market for a TV. (It was way time.) I shopped around for a few days and hit all of the popular TV haunts: Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, etc. Literally cash-in-hand, my wife and I finally trotted on over to Best Buy to make our purchase. Only... when we got there, we were royally ignored by no fewer than seven Best Buy employees who seemed to have nothing better to do than... um... walk around with their hands in their pockets. The two couples who were already waiting in the TV section when we got there left the store empty-handed.

We finally decide to tackle an employee and ask him for a price on an unmarked Panasonic. He stops just shy of rolling his eyes at us, pauses to think for a minute, and then asks us "um, you want me to go look it up?"

Um, yeah.

Ten minutes later, he comes back, feet dragging, shoulders slumped, obviously thrilled to be there. (Meanwhile, three of his coworkers are huddled in a corner, having a chat while other customers and desperately trying to get their attention.) He flatly gives us the price, does an about-face, and walks away without asking us if we want to buy it.

Where does he go? To chat with his three blue-shirted buddies.

We left empty-handed. So did the other customers who were ignored.

Against my better judgement, we returned to best Buy today to get that TV (hoping for better service). But the same thing happened. We were ignored again by the sales staff (who, by the way, seem to be making a point to avoid eye-contact with customers throughout the store).

So guess what: We walked out, crossed the street, and went to Circuit City. Yep, boring old Circuit City. And what did we find there? The same TV at the same price. The difference is that there, we weren't just greeted at the door. We were greeted on the floor, by a young guy who was super helpful and very friendly. While he was checking if the TV we wanted was in stock, another sales guy who was passing by stopped to ask us if we needed any help. He was friendly too.

Best Buy lost a customer today. Circuit City made a new friend.

The skinny: Both stores are exactly the same distance from my house, carry the same products and offer the same prices. One treated me poorly and the other one treated me well.

I bought from the latter.

Just like the king told his sons: "Your kingdom is your people." Your people are your employees. Your people are your customers. Your people are all of the folks who come in contact with you and your company.

I used to buy into the whole "hey, no worries, we don't work on commission" song and dance, but you know what? If "no commission" means "no service when we don't feel like dealing with customers today," no thanks.

Want to know how to lose customers? Treat them poorly. Worse yet, ignore them. Or treat them like an inconvenience, even. As Seth Godin points out in his latest blog entry: "All the magazine ads in the world can't undo one lousy desk clerk."

Best Buy isn't about a big yellow logo or huge pretty stores. It isn't about cool ads or product selection. It isn't even about convenience. Kingdoms aren't about golden palaces and lavish gardens.

People buy from people. People interract with people. People form relationships with people. Whether you're Best Buy or Starbucks or Apple or McDonalds, there's no getting around it.

Customer service and customer experience are not commodities. They are at the very core of your brand. Of your identity. Of your raison d'etre.

People don't want to be treated like dirt. They want to be welcomed. They want to be taken care of. They want to walk out of your store with a smile on their face. Buying a TV should be fun. It shouldn't be a drag.

Lesson number one: Letting your employees get away with unprofessional behavior is the first step towards brand identity doom:

Looks like Best Buy has some broken windows to fix.

Oh, I almost forgot... The moral of the story is...

The customer is king.

(Always was. Always will be.)

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