This weekend I found myself in a large store just after opening. I’m a pretty quick grocery shopper, I pride myself in grabbing what I want and getting out – I like to save my time for more fun things. I’m guessing it took me about twelve minutes to get to the checkout, or should I say to be able to just about see the checkout. The store had been open for 36 minutes, and there were at least forty people waiting, and of course, only four checkouts open.

This column isn’t about the lack of open checkouts, or even the long lines of people (I happened to have a few people I knew near me and we had a great chance to chat). It’s not about naming the store, because it’s not about them. It’s about the way businesses handle things when things go awry.

I don’t know what happened, whether it was an unusually large crowd that they weren’t expecting, whether 17 people had called in sick, if the electricity to half the store was out. I have no idea. What I do know is that they way it was handled was by making as little eye contact with the customers as possible. It was as though the staff had been taught that if they didn’t look up, we weren’t there. No information was given – when someone emptied their money tray as if they were opening a new checkout and a sweet elderly lady wandered towards it, and asked if they were opening, she was told “no” swiftly and nothing else.

Can you imagine how different it would have been if someone had smiled at us. What if they had apologized or told us they were having problems, that they didn’t usually have so many people this early, and they had their best people on the checkouts and would have us out in no time.

In their defense, I have been in this store many times, and I have only ever had great service, and smiling faces – I have no idea what conspired to create the events of the weekend, if I did maybe I wouldn’t be writing about it.

The thing is, we all have times when things don’t go as smoothly as we like, when we forget to call a client, or we leave somebody waiting, or an order doesn’t arrive that we had promised to someone, (fill in your own experience here). It’s not what goes wrong, it’s how we handle it.

I suggest eye contact, a smile, an honest show of regret, and some humor (where appropriate) and some (simple) explanation. People are very understanding when you give them the chance, and we like to be given that chance.

You can spend your day guessing the company involved, but you’d be missing the point completely. We can all learn from how I felt to be ignored, and remember that your customers may not always be right, but they are the ones that determine the success of your business.

(This column was first published in The Daily Advertiser on Tuesday 31st July 2012, all usual rights reserved)