WhackI recently needed an auto part. Badly. Cold and wet, I stumbled into one store after another and asked for it. The universal answer?


Gosh, I really need this part. Any idea where I can get it?

“I dunno.”

Well, what if you ordered one for me?

“It’d take a long time.”

Pop quiz: Will I make it a point to go back to any of these stores, ever?

I realize you probably don’t run an auto parts store. You run a nice small business baking muffins, selling bath soap, writing grants, or whatever. And you are big enough to have employees facing the public. So do you ever listen to what they say to people?

If you really did listen in on them – you might take a good stiff drink first – you may find you are actually paying some of them to chase your customers away by playing passive-aggressive. They probably don’t even mean to act badly (none of the people I spoke to above was rude), but they still make your paying customers play this maddening game of whack-a-mole as they try to get at what you purportedly sell.

This phenomena is not even limited to the business world. My wife and I were once on vacation in a town whose glossy brochures emphasized its scenic lakes. So, silly me, I called their tourist information center to ask which lakes to visit, and spoke with a woman whose voice could curdle milk:

“Well, sir, we have a lot of lakes. You can’t expect me to list them for you over the phone.”

OK, fair enough. Are there, um, any lakes you like?

“Depends. Where do you want to go?”

Golly, I’ve never been here before. I was hoping you could tell me where to go. Right now I’m in town.

“(Deep sigh.) Well, there isn’t much near town.”

Actually, this conversation wasn’t a total loss – it was so spectacularly horrible that I quietly turned on my cell’s speakerphone so my sweetie could giggle along with me. But I am positive this wasn’t quite what the glossy brochure writers had in mind.

So how do you fix this problem? Easy. Here you go:

Teach your employees how to acknowledge customers. Every time they open their mouth.

Repeat after me:

“Absolutely, I realize you really need this part.”

“You probably want to get this as soon as possible.”

“Yes, we have some beautiful lakes around here.”

Then – and only then – go ahead and tell them all the things you can’t, don’t, and won’t do. Or better yet, offer them some options. But make sure you make yourself an ally of the customer first.

If you run a business, learning how to acknowledge people can save you future business and revenue. If you work for a business, it can save your job. When you make the customer play whack-a-mole, only one person loses – you.