how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)


Recently, on a trip to Massachusetts, I had the miserable experience of losing the keys to a rental car. I was frantic. The car was parked in a garage in Boston. I called the rental car company in desperation. I was thinking they would have another set of keys. They were useless — hard to reach (one gets a robophone), and totally unhelpful.

I eventually got through to a PERSON. A woman whom I spoke with said that I had to get a locksmith to make new keys. She gave me the phone number of a couple of locksmiths.

The first locksmith I called was based in a suburb of Boston. He had a foreign accent. He seemed difficult to deal with from the get go, like the kind of guy who is suspicious of everyone — presumably, this would apply not only to customers but to anyone seeking something from him.

We had a frustrating back and forth exchange over several phone calls. All the while, it seemed by no means a certainly — by no means guaranteed — that he could or would help me. He had several questions, such as what was the model and year of the rental car. I told him I had not really paid attention when I rented the car, but that I would check. As I was looking through the papers from the rental car company (my car was a few blocks away in the garage), I could sense his impatience and annoyance.

He finally said okay, then told me he would get back to me when the key was made. An hour or so later, he called back and said that he could not make a key for that model car.

I got through to another locksmith. It was pretty much the same thing. He said he could not tell me how long it would take to make a new key, but that it would take quite a while, perhaps not until the next day. He seemed uncertain about whether he would do it, and implied that it would be expensive without specifying the cost. I finally terminated the conversation. Wouldn’t you know it, he called back the next day after I had resolved the problem, still looking to do the job.

It finally occurred to me, “I’m a member of AAA (the American Automobile Association). Why hadn’t I thought of calling them?” AAA found a locksmith for me. Within minutes he called me. He asked for a few specifics and said fine, he could and would do it right away. He quoted a price. Then, he told me, “Relax. I will be there at the garage entrance with the key within a couple of hours.” He was also outside of Boston. It wasn’t like he was right next door.

He showed up within a couple of hours, as promised. He called me a couple of times on my cell phone to tell me he was on his way.

He met me at the entrance to the garage, in a minivan. “Can I get in?” I asked. “Sure,” he said with a smile. He drove me up the ramp of the garage to the car and opened the front left door for me. Told me it was a pleasure to meet me and that he hoped the rest of my trip went well. Made it clear, implicitly, that he had enjoyed having the opportunity to be of service and left me with good vibes, feeling better about things overall, despite my miserable day.

This experience got me to thinking about businesspeople, particularly small businesspeople. Why do some succeed and others seem to drive customers away?



Another story in a similar vein.

A few months ago, my wife and I had an unanticipated car problem. I think it was an ignition problem; I forget. It was something routine which any mechanic could fix, and was not something that required high tech.

Car problems unhinge me, since I am mechanically inept. I am totally at the mercy of mechanics.

I asked my wife what service station we should call. She recommended that I call Pat’s, a gas station around the corner from us, the closest one. My wife’s cousin has been going there for years.

I dutifully called Pat’s. I started to tell the guy, the owner, about my car problem.

“Who’s this?” he asked.

“What do you mean. ‘Who’s this,’ “ I replied. “My name is Roger Smith. I’m calling to request service.”

He asked me again, “Who’s this?”

After a few more such questions. I was exasperated. He finally deigned to tell me the hours the station was open, without quite saying that they could provide service, but implying that I could come in and he would take it from there. He was abrupt on the phone and uncommunicative, besides being surly.

I went to another place that specializes in car service (not a gas station) about 15 minutes away from where we live. I just drove there, did not call ahead. When I arrived, they said sure, they could take care of the problem within a couple of hours, and that they would call me when the car was ready. They seemed glad to have the business and were pleasant and easy to deal with. Everything went just fine.



Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to continue learning Russian, which I had studied in college. I found a Russian instructor, an expatriate living in New York, on the internet.

We made arrangements for lessons at his discount rate of forty dollars per hour. To qualify for such a rate, he explained, I had to commit to seeing him twice a week.

He conducted the lessons in a “public space” on the ground floor of a Manhattan building.

He was not enjoyable to study with. Right away, issues developed. He seemed frustrated dealing with limitations and inadequacies with regard to my command of Russian. After all, thought I, isn’t that why I’m here?

He told me I should purchase a handheld tape recorder and bring it to lessons with me, so that he could record his speaking voice and I could thereby develop greater proficiency in pronunciation. During the lessons, I had slight difficulty manipulating the buttons on the tape recorder. He was impatient with me on this account.

He said he must be paid in cash (which was fine with me), and it was always the first thing he required of me. He seemed worried that he might not be paid, which I thought was silly, since one could clearly see that I was the responsible type.

He seemed not to enjoy giving lessons. Teaching, either privately or in a classroom, does not appeal to everyone, it is clear, but, I thought, it was he who was advertising his services as a freelance tutor, and one could imagine that many people in his situation would enjoy having the opportunity to draw upon what in the USA would be a rare expertise to make a living, and impart that knowledge to others. Not the case with him.

One day, not long into beginning lessons with him, I asked him a question or made a mistake in speaking Russian, and he could not hide his annoyance. I thought to myself, I don’t need this. I’m the customer. I’m paying him. And, he acts like I’m IMPOSING upon him. I quit.

Needless to say, he called me after a short while attempting to get me to continue lessons with him.



I’m sure that you, dear reader, have your own horror stories to tell. So, what’s my point?

What I was thinking is that in business, particularly in small businesses where there is face to face interaction and a direct exchange of services and money, one finds that it is not essentially different from other forms of human interaction — the same principles are operative. And, that the same things that make relationships germinate and flourish, or fail miserably, are determinative in the business sphere. One has to, I would aver, LIKE what they do and take pleasure in doing it for the benefit of others to be successful. I guess this is obvious. But, I have often — or at least more often that I wish had been the case — found myself enduring bad service because it seemed there was no other choice.

Over the years, I have become more canny. When I get bad vibes, I tell myself, it’s time to go somewhere else. There’s always another provider within reach providing the same services. And, I realize that it’s not different than interacting with people in general. First impressions are crucial, and sometimes you get a bad feeling up front. Sometimes you can sense that someone doesn’t take to you, wishes you would go away, or is going to be unpleasant. Out of the murk, one can see or sense unpleasantness emerging. It’s usually, or often, a single remark, a look, gesture, or the answer to an inquiry. You walk into a business establishment, call them up and right away you get negative vibes. Usually, it’s a sense that they don’t want to be bothered; are suspicious of you, wondering why you are looking for services from them; wish you would go away and leave them alone. Making one wonder, why did they hang out a shingle or list their phone number in the first place?



Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.

I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.

The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.

Many of these people like what they do, which is the best of all possible worlds.


— Roger W. Smith

  September 2017

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