Brandt On Leadership -- Clueless Customer Contests

July 13, 2007
Everyone has a story about outrageously inept customer behavior. We want to hear yours.

For those of you with dumb customers, or who have ever lived through a disastrous pitch or nightmarish evening with said dumb customers, these contests are for you. Here's why:

Several years back, I ran a Dumb Bosses contest in this column. With no prize other than the joy of knowing that their particular pain-in-the, uh, -neck bosses would be (anonymously) humiliated, employees and executives across this great land responded in force. I was inundated with tales of the clueless, the greedy and the insensitive. America, I learned, was full of dumb bosses, and growing fuller each day.

Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that there were probably at least as many dumb customers out there as dumb bosses. Just do the math: All those dumb bosses must buy at least a few things themselves, and there are lots of people who aren't bosses yet who are still dumb as stumps -- and who are also buying things from you and me. Add them up and that's a truly astounding number of potentially dumb customers.

So Contest No. 1 is this: Send me ([email protected]) the story of your Dumb Customer, and I'll (anonymously) print the dumbest of the dumb.

It's not just dumb customers that make this executive life so, ah, interesting, but dumb circumstances and awkward pitch meetings as well. A friend of mine, for example, once found himself temporarily running a civic arena in a major city for the bank that had foreclosed upon it. Among the usual litany of things you might find -- mismanagement, possible embezzlement -- he also learned that the building's roof was in danger of collapse. My friend dreaded the meeting in which he would have to convince bankers already out millions of dollars to invest even more just to keep the place safe.

Then things got really sticky.

On the day of the big meeting, the circus happened to be at the arena. His path to the highway (and airport) stymied by a line of elephants across the parking lot, our hero got out of his car and was immediately sneezed upon by a 10,000-pound pachyderm.

This, I am told, is easily the worst head-to-toe experience you can imagine.

Undeterred, my friend drove furiously to the airport, frantically trying to wipe off at least his face and lapels. Flight attendants delayed his seating, asking if he was well enough to travel -- after all, he seemed to be covered in massive amounts of, well, something. After arriving in New York he again attempted to clear his hair and eyebrows, having given up on his encrusted suit -- and then told the whole sad story to the quizzical bankers. Who promptly roared, fell out of their chairs -- and gave him the money.

So Contest No.2 is: Send me the story of the worst, most embarrassing or disastrous customer pitch you've been part of, or witness to, and I'll (anonymously) print the best (worst) ones.

Then again, maybe the worst part of dealing with dumb customers is entertaining them. Years ago another friend of mine had a client -- call him Manny -- who would only buy from vendors who took him to his favorite, er, adult entertainment venue. My friend was cajoled into accompanying his local rep and Manny to aforesaid establishment, where Manny quickly overserved himself and ended up on the stage, next to the pole with the, ah, waitresses. The only problem was that Manny had an artificial leg -- which, during Manny's, uh, dancing, unfortunately came loose and then, even more unfortunately, completely fell off. My friend and his colleague went above and beyond by leaping onto the stage, rescuing Manny and his leg, and then putting them into a cab toward an uncertain future with Mrs. Manny.

All of which leads to Contest No. 3: Send me the best (worst) story of customers misbehaving on the corporate dime, and I'll print the funniest -- names withheld, of course.

Legal Stuff: IndustryWeek and I reserve the right not to print stories that aren't dumb enough, but that seems unlikely. And, as always, there are no real prizes except the immortalization of the fools who've made your sales life a living hell.

But isn't that enough?

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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