Although we reside in the U.S., my wife grew up in Northwest London and her family still lives there. So for the past 22 years we've visited London as a family, to see her family, anywhere from two to four times a year.
And for 22 years, we've used the same mini-cab service to transport our family back and forth between Heathrow Airport and her parents' house. No, I don't know why it's called a "mini-cab" ... that's just a British thing. It's basically a private taxi service that's somewhat less expensive than the traditional black cabs you see around town. We've also used this mini-cab service to take us on the short ride between her parents' house and the nearby Tube station.
And that's not all. My wife's father, who suffers from poor eyesight (and an inexplicable passion for cricket, the world's most boring sport), uses that same mini-cab service to transport him to places nearby. And my wife's sister, who also suffers from a similar hereditary problem, does the same. Our teenage nieces call on the company whenever they need to be rescued late at night when the buses aren't running. In summary, the entire family uses this small business a lot. For decades. It was, until just a few weeks ago, a very enjoyable relationship.
What happened a few weeks ago? Manchester United played Chelsea.
For the record, baseball's my game. But my sons are huge soccer fans and we always go to games when we visit London. We got tickets for the big match: an FA Cup quarter-final. We booked a mini-cab ride from our friendly local service to a local station so that we could catch a train to Chelsea's stadium. On the way, the mini-cab driver said that he and his dispatcher were big Man U fans and would also be closely following the match.
The driver also asked if we would like to be picked up at the station after the game. I told him that I couldn't guarantee when we would be back. It might be around 6 p.m., I guessed. Or not. He said, "No problem, mate. I'll try to be here at six to get you. Unless Manchester loses. Ha ha!" I said, "Please don't go out of your way. We'll look for you. If you're not here we'll take another cab. It's no big deal." He said fine, but he would do his best.
As it turns out, Man U lost to Chelsea 1-0, which eliminated them from the FA Cup tournament. They did not play well. Their fans were not happy. But my sons and I had a blast. Every time we go to a British football match we learn another creative way to use the F-word in a sentence. When we arrived back at the station that evening at around 6 p.m., we went to the place where we agreed to meet and the mini-cab wasn't there. We waited five minutes. No cab. It was raining. We were tired. We took another taxi home.
The next day I called the mini-cab service to book another ride. When I told the dispatcher our address, he said, "Wait a minute, I remember you from yesterday. You had my driver wait for two hours last night and never showed up." I explained to him what happened. He wanted none of it. He refused to book me another car unless I also paid the Â£30 (that's about $45) owed for the missed cab ride the night before. I refused to budge. He refused to budge. We yelled at each other. We shared creative uses of the F-word in a sentence. We hung up on each other. I called another mini-cab service in the next neighborhood and booked another ride. My loyal in-laws, on hearing the story, were also upset and vowed to move their business to the competitor too.
What was this madness? Why was the dispatcher acting so stubbornly over such a small amount with such a good customer? Did this have something to do with his team's performance the day before? Was Man U the cause of this crazy behavior?
Or maybe it was something else. So let me ask you: When someone calls your firm, does the person picking up the phone immediately know who that caller is? Is it a current client? How big a client? What services do you provide? How long have they been a client? Maybe it's a prospective client with a large pending opportunity. Or an important partner. Who spoke to them last? Are there any open service problems or engagement letters? What was the last e-mail exchange with that person? How valuable is that client to your business? Or is your person answering the phone in the dark - like the dispatcher at the mini-cab company?
This is CRM -- customer relationship management. This is not a foreign concept to small businesses, whether they're in the U.S. or the U.K. It's an accepted practice utilized by millions of companies today. And it's inexpensive. Sure, you can invest significant amounts in great products from Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Sugar CRM, or Sage. But for many small companies, like the little mini-cab service we (used to) use in Northwest London, you could subscribe to an inexpensive, cloud-based CRM like Zoho, Nimble, Highrise or Insightly.
I don't fault the dispatcher. He's just an angry guy (and a frustrated Man U fan) in a tough job. I fault his boss, the owner. She couldn't cough up a few pounds to implement a simple CRM database in her company? Because if she did, then the dispatcher would've immediately seen our history: the rides to and from Heathrow, the doctors' offices, the supermarket, the tube stations and all the other places used by my wife's family over the years. He might've seen notes left by drivers like, "Bloody annoying Americans, but good tippers." He would've seen a relationship going back two decades.
And his boss? With a good CRM system using automatic workflows and alerts, she would've known if revenues from a good customer like us fell or disappeared over a period of time. And if she cared, she would've had a simple process in place to reach out with a phone call or e-mail and discover why this occurred and how to fix it. Because that's what smart business people are doing with CRM systems nowadays.
Did Manchester United's loss blind this man when he turned away tens of thousands of future business from a customer's family over a mere $45? Perhaps. But a simple CRM system could've avoided this problem. And Man U? Oh, please. They may have been eliminated from a tournament, but they're about to win the league. Meanwhile, this small business lost something much bigger: a great customer.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses. Besides Accounting Today, he writes for Forbes, The New York Times and Inc.com.
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