What to Say to a Porcupine

20 Humorous Tales That Get to the Heart of Great Customer Service

 What to Say to a Porcupine

Author: Richard S. Gallagher
Pub Date: June 2008
Print Edition: $12.95
Print ISBN: 9780814416792
Page Count: 128
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814410561

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• 1 • Send in the Clowns

Some clowns were sitting around a conference table, with serious looks on their grease-painted faces, as they met with a consultant at their local small business development center.

Bubbles, a six-foot-tall clown with a huge mop of purple hair, spoke up first. “Back when we were with the circus, we used to chase one another around the big top,” he said. “But nowadays, we haven’t been so good at chasing business.”

“Hmm. How bad are your business problems?” said the consultant.

“Let’s just say that if we don’t figure out something soon, wearing these tramp suits isn’t going to be an act anymore,” replied Bubbles.

“So why did you folks start this business, anyway?”

“The circus owners decided that we didn’t fit their strategic plan anymore,” sighed Bonzo, one of the other clowns. “As they put it, ‘Elephants don’t need fringe benefits.’ Anyway, we decided to start our own clown-for-hire business. You know, the usual stuff—corporate work, hospitals, perhaps a few private parties here and there.”

“I see,” the consultant intoned. “Are you having trouble getting leads?”

“I’ll say! When we go to marketing events, people always seem to hightail it away from us faster than you can say wowie kazowie.”

“Well, let’s sit down and examine this situation,” replied the consultant. As he took his seat, the unmistakable sound of a whoopee cushion filled the room—which immediately got the consultant thinking. Looking intently at each of the clowns, he said, “Tell me more about these marketing events. What happens when a potential customer comes over to talk with you folks?”

“Well, we usually spray them with seltzer,” Bonzo replied. “But it just doesn’t seem to work.”

“Honking our big red horns in their ears doesn’t do the trick, ¬either,” Bubbles noted dourly. “We thought it was funny until we tried it with a police group, and we all got charged with disorderly conduct.”

Then the consultant said, “I think I see the problem. It’s your first impressions on customers. You are acting like a bunch of clowns!”

The clowns looked at one another with mock surprise as Buster replied, “Well, duh-uh.”

The consultant continued unfazed. “You see, when someone is looking to hire a clown, it’s all about them, not you. They want a good time. They want to make their kids happy, or impress their clients. They’ve got needs to fill. And you’re all too busy clowning around to notice.”

“So we can’t just be ourselves?” Bubbles asked, sheepishly.

“To quote one of my favorite childhood TV shows, that’s a Bozo no-no,” replied the consultant. “You need to focus on making a good first impression on your customers—right out of the starting gate. If you don’t, you may never get a second chance.”

For the rest of the session, the consultant held a serious discussion—at least, as serious as one can have in a room full of clowns—on strategies to create a good initial impression. The recommendations ranged from how to introduce themselves to the finer points of negotiating a sales contract. As things wrapped up for the afternoon, the consultant offered them one final piece of advice: “Oh, by the way—those big red clown shoes and the rubber noses? Gotta go. Save the getup for after you sign the contract.”

“But it worked for Ronald McDonald!” wailed Bubbles.

“Look . . . make a DVD of yourselves in action, and then get a suit,” the consultant said sharply. “And this”—he continued, holding up the deflated whoopee cushion—“isn’t even funny.”


Six months later, the same clowns—now looking very distinguished in their dark suits and ties—gathered for a much happier follow-up meeting with the same consultant.

“So, how’s it going, Bubbles?” he asked, turning to greet their leader.

“You can call me Fred now,” he replied with a smile. “Things couldn’t be going better. Nowadays, our corporate motto is, ‘We are serious about entertaining you,’ and we pride ourselves on taking a professional, strategic approach to planning customer events.”

“Excellent!” the consultant said. “Has it improved your business?”

“Beyond our wildest dreams,” Fred replied, as the others nodded in unison. “We’ve gone from being a bunch of clowns to becoming corporate and residential entertainment specialists. And you are now looking at the management team of a very large and growing enterprise.”

The consultant, visibly impressed, clapped Fred on the back. “That is fantastic! I’m impressed that you were able to turn your business around so well. Tell me, do you folks ever miss acting like clowns?”

“Well, just this once,” Fred smiled. “We recently bought out the circus where we used to work, and we’re just about to meet with our old CEO to discuss the new business strategy.” As the others around the table pulled out their horns and seltzer bottles, he continued, “We’re going to have a lot of fun with that meeting. But you were absolutely right—success really is a matter of knowing when to be yourselves.”

Moral: Make a Good First Impression

You have thirty seconds to make an impression on someone—and that initial impression will govern a customer’s reactions from then on. That’s why smart companies from all walks of life work hard to make the most of those first thirty seconds. For example:

• When you hire a moving company, your first visit usually isn’t from someone in grubby work clothes—more likely it’s a pleasant person wearing a suit, stopping by to discuss your needs for the move.

• When you visit the dentist, she probably doesn’t start the visit by talking about your teeth at all—more likely, she will ask questions or make small talk designed to put you at ease.

• Even online customer support centers are often trained to respond to your problems by typing messages that welcome you warmly and offer to be helpful.

Realize that it’s all about the customer—and when businesses put themselves in that customer’s mind-set, right from the start, they get that much more of a chance to be the best at what they do.

Discussion Questions

What Kind of image do you want to convey to your customers?

What is the difference between focusing on your expertise versus your customers’ needs?

What kinds of things can you do—and say—with customers to make it “all about them”?

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