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December 8, 2005

What the dentist taught me about ignoring customers

I liked my dentist, but I see now that it wasn't for any reason beyond his nice smile and my inclination to trust professionals. Blessed with great teeth, I had only spent much time with his chatty hygienist; his "exams" were cursory pokes and pleasantries. Spending time with the dentist himself was a valuable and humbling lesson in paying attention to customers.

Blissfully uninitiated in the ways of oral torture I showed up recently for what I was later told was "the simplest procedure of the day" -– for the dentist. (It was the most complex procedure of my day.) I foolishly sat down and opened my mouth as instructed, imagining that after a quick look the dentist and his assistant would tell me what they were going to do, how long it would take, and other useful information. Instead they unexpectedly shoved a sheet of magic latex in my mouth and I disappeared.

Well, I think it was magic latex; I never actually saw it. But apparently it did make me disappear, because neither the dentist nor assistant saw me again until it was removed. They chatted with each other about contestants on reality TV. They casually observed, after almost finishing and raising my hopes for removal of the latex gag, that the dentist had worked on the wrong tooth. Without apology or explanation they just started over on the right (?) one while continuing their conversation.

They acted like any two retail clerks sharing a few moments of gossip while stocking shelves, except that, unlike the shelf stockers, they both had their fingers in a conscious customer’s mouth.

Make that ex-customer's mouth.

If my dentist can forget to see the customer inches from his face, how much easier is it for me to ignore my much more remote customers? The week before visiting the dentist I was at a trade show where we had a large booth with a meeting area right in the middle. Often I continued meetings with colleagues while a customer perused our literature and waited for a salesperson to help him. Being ignored by my dentist days later filled me with shame for letting customers see me sit there with co-workers while they went unattended.

It is alright to spend time on things other than the customer. It is okay to talk with colleagues. It is not okay to ignore the customer in front of you. When the dentist is in the exam room the patient should not be ignored. When I am in the trade show booth the customer should not be ignored. Disney's guidelines for employees –- referred to as cast members -– have it right: when we are with customers we are on stage. And if we too often forget it, we will lose our audience.

Posted by Bob Pritchett at December 8, 2005 9:41 PM

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