Would You Lose a Customer over Seven Cents?

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There’s a deli across from my office, on 6th Avenue between 29th Street and 30th Street. It’s one of five delis within a one block radius of my office, and it just happened to be the first one I bought from the day I moved in, and I stuck with it.

Today, I went in for a usual order: Roast beef,  American cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard, on a roll. I grabbed a soda on my way to the counter. Opening my wallet, I realized that I hadn’t stopped by the bank recently. (I’m using cash less and less, anyway.)

Anyhow, the total was $10.07. I had two five dollar bills in my wallet. The woman behind the counter was the same woman I’d seen and paid for the past six months, give or take a few days. I looked at her and smiled, saying “can I owe you seven cents?”

She looked at me: “You don’t have seven cents?” “No, I don’t. Can I give it to you tomorrow? You know who I am, you see me in here every day that I’m in the office.”

“Ten dollar seven cents,” was her reply.

She was actually arguing with a regular customer over seven cents. The very first time I’d ever not had the money to pay my bill. And it was SEVEN CENTS.

Fortunately, a woman behind me heard the conversation. “Here you go,” she smiled at me, offering me a nickel and two pennies. I thanked her, handing the seven cents to the cashier, with the snarky comment of “now you won’t have to close the store and go out of business, I’ve got your seven cents.”

Look, I get it – The price is the price. But this was seven cents on an almost daily customer. Seven cents! Not eight dollars. Not free. Seven cents. On a loyal customer! It’s certainly the store’s right to make me pay the full price, I get that. But I also get the fact that I go there whenever I’m in the office, which is probably at least three days a week. So chances are, that’s what, $30 a week? $120 a month? $1440 a year? At least? And that’s just me! My whole office has been going there! That’s four people, and they’re in the office each day.

In the end, I think I’m going to try a new deli. And that’s a shame, because one employee killed my business with that store. It’s not a question of the seven cents, obviously, but rather, it’s a bad taste left in my mouth. I’m a friendly person. I like to smile. I like to engage in chit-chat. If I went back to that store, my friendliness would be gone, and replaced by the memory of the woman who didn’t have the foresight or goodwill to advance me less than a dime. And why should I want to deal with that every day?

Worst part? Had she been ok with the seven cents, I would have remembered, paid it back tomorrow, and from that moment on, been a Zombie Loyalist to that deli. Why? Because they helped me when I had a problem. Instead, they turned me away, and that’s going to cost them a lot more than seven cents.

The same is true in any business. There are rules, but there are times to bend them. When you stick to a rule and it causes you to lose more money than the rule would have earned, it’s a rule that can be bent. (Tweet this!)

The next time you have the ability to bend a rule for the greater good, I recommend doing it. And if you’re a boss, instill that into your employees – You’ll be amazed how rarely they’ll take advantage of it – You won’t lose money. Chances are, you’ll make even more money, and gain a few new customers.

PS: They forgot the mustard.

  • Ross Felix

    As usual — a great post and a great lesson. And you know what I like the most about it? That you told the story without shaming the deli itself. I love the fact that you used this more as a lesson of “what not to do” rather than use the platform to out them. Kudos.

  • Stacy Robin

    Funny you should bring this up – because I frequent Joe Coffee in Grand Central where only cash is accepted. At least once or twice a week (when I’m there – can’t imagine how many times a day it occurs) a customer has no cash. Without any drama, whether the staff has seen the person before or not, they hand the customer his/her order and pleasantly ask if they’ll be at this (Grand Central) location or one of their others in the near future – and can settle up then. I’ve always thought it to be an incredible loyalty-building practice, not just for the customer, but for anyone who hears. It’s always seemed to me that the gesture brings them far more than the cost of the order ever could.

    • ccd3511

      Thanks for sharing! As a Seattleite I love trying coffee in different cities but haven’t happened upon them yet in my New York travels!

    • rashi

      Joe Coffee in Grand Central is absolutely the best is customer service! I actually go out of my way sometimes just to get cafe au lait and some of their good energy!

    • M Llata

      Customer service means A LOT! I will have to go check out Joe Coffee and I’ll bring cash! 😉

  • Julie May

    THEY FORGOT THE MUSTARD! UNFORGIVABLE!

  • Wayne

    Nice post, Peter, and a great point made…it’s often the small things that make all the difference in business…

  • George M

    I was at a large deli in NYC a few years ago, eating in, had my order (those half-brined pickles are disgusting), now time to pay. I offer my credit card, told the machine is down, I’ll have to pay cash. Which was OK, but I asked what if I don’t have any cash? That’s your problem, was the reply.

  • John Lonsdorf

    Is the woman the owner, or is she an employee? If she is the owner, then I would agree with your conclusion — find another deli. If she’s a employee, you could consider asking to speak with the owner or perhaps mailing him or her a copy of your blog post. You would be doing them a favor in the long run.

    Oh, and roast beef with American cheese calls for mayo, not mustard!

    • Jody Hatton

      Agreed! Don’t make the owner (or yourself) suffer because their employee is basically a dumbass. If the boss has the same policy — totally, go somewhere else.

      • dyna

        The issue here is that the boss may throw the employee under the bus to save face in confrontation. No one wins in this instance.

  • TuckerdogNC

    I often stop at a HotSpot station near my house, never for gasoline, but
    occasionally for a bag of chips or a lottery ticket. I have had my bill
    be $3.01 or something like $2.02 and I’ve either had to go to the car
    to get the penny or break a dollar. Most everywhere else, there’s the
    take a penny tray, or the cashier has always said, “don’t worry about
    it,” especially the places I frequent. I even had a cashier the other
    day cover me for SEVEN CENTS. Thanks for the reminder to not frequent
    the places that are in it for the pennies not the long term thousands.

  • ccd3511

    Several friends and I have worked at places where that seven cents would come out of their/my paycheck, even if the person came back the next day and paid the difference. (That money the second day would go into tips, where I personally got nothing since most of my retail-type stuff has been freelance/IC at an event, but my friends would maybe get one cent back if tips happen to be divided between the team.)

    Seven cents really doesn’t seem like a lot, I get it and agree that it isn’t about the money. However, if you have 3 people doing that a day and 3 days of non-balanced tills mean you’re fired you’re going to have employees who are unyielding in this sort of policy. A person whose hourly wage doesn’t go up or down because of one person changing delis but will lose their source of income over being short 7 cents will care more about the 7 cents than your individual patronage.

    • $311151

      Good point. It’s hard to tell if this is a case of a rigid, unthinking employee or of a boss whose discipline policies have unintended consequences. Some places fire people when the till doesn’t balance.

      • Joel Venable

        I disagree. I highly doubt that someone making $9/hr or so would give a rat’s behind about 7 cents without a rigid, unwavering management policy.

    • Leah Carey

      I think that goes back to Peter’s original point – the business should NEVER put an employee in the position of having to make that decision. If the employee is concerned about their drawer not balancing and makes a customer-unfriendly decision as a result, the problem lies with the BUSINESS, not the employee who does what they’ve been trained to do. The management and customer policies at a company are almost always top-down. The behavior we see from employees is simply the natural output of what they’re learning from their high-ups. (Of course there are bad apples, but if a company really has a customer-friendly environment, those bad apples are going to show up and be weeded out pretty quickly.)

  • I think this is one my favorite posts yet 🙂 I don’t think that enough businesses realize that awkward interactions linger in people’s minds, and that customers will usually chose the path of least resistance (both internal and external).

  • Lynn Jauregui

    I would absolutely reach out to the Owner of the deli and let him know what transpired. Hopefully he realizes the values in retaining a customer for 7 cents.
    I am the client Retention Dept. for my Company. It is my job and my responsibility to retain clients for my employer. Reputation is very important to us and not just the almighty dollar. I can tell you that my clients appreciate so much that I listen to them and work with them in any means possible to retain their business and keep them happy with our Company. Sometimes I lose customers due to price because even after I’ve given them discounts etc. they still can’t afford our software or any for that matter. They always tell me though, thank you so much for your willingness to work with us, we will be back when we are more stable and profitable.

  • Claudine Farmer Hanani

    As one who can read a story and instantly get the real story behind the story…Peter, please dont eat American Cheese…we care about you too much!!

    • Nicole Buergers

      Came here to say the same thing! You can trust me, I’m a cheesemonger.

  • I paid for condoms at Babeland with cash last week and didn’t have the change. It was less than ten cents. The cashier took it from the change jar they have for customers who don’t take their change.

    Customers are always leaving small change behind, and delis are notorious for not giving you your penny. I ALWAYS have to ask the deli for my penny. It’s not the penny, it’s the principle.

    If we’re going to talk about the till not adding up at the end of the day, let’s be clear that the delis aren’t always honest about giving correct change back or giving you your change at all. Let’s also be clear (and real) that delis in NYC are also a cash business. You may see them ringing up digital till, but it doesn’t mean they are itemizing to the seven cents.

    • shankman

      I think the important thing here was that you were buying condoms at Babeland.. 🙂 Just kidding. Great comment!

  • Jetgirljade

    You are punishing a business for your inability to pay what it costs. If you go there all the time, you should know how much it costs. This is exactly the type of additude that is pervasively ramant in our country these days. No one owes you anything. If you want a sandwich it isn’t unreasonable to expect you to pay every penny. If the tables were turned would you feel the same way? What if they didn’t have everything you wanted for your sandwich, but they expected you to pay for it anyway? You wouldn’t appreciate that. Where do you draw the line exactly? Seven cents short is ok to you, what about ten, or quarter? There is no way for an establishment to draw a clear line, even with repeat customers. The fact that you think the cashier was wrong to expect the full amount for your purchase just shows that you aren’t even considering how this makes you look. You were the one that was ill prepared for you transaction. If she couldn’t give you every penny of change in a transaction, you would be annoyed with her, and that would be reasonable. The customer behind you was a nice person to chip in and make up for the problem, but it was your fault, not the deli’s, not the clerks, and certainly no one else’s. Grow up. If you want a sandwich today, you pay for it today, not tomorrow.

    • shankman

      Um. Yeah. That’s it. Totally. You found me out. I was secretly trying to screw them out of seven cents.

      The truth is out there.

    • RayM

      Not sure which part you read or are responding to but you are so missing the point. Peter didn’t ask for .07, he asked to pay tomorrow. If you’ve read anything that he has ever written it’s about growing a business. What he has done to enlighten business owners to best practices through his ‘free’ writing on a blog helps every business owner. Your judgment is quite misplaced. Grace, it’s a beautiful word – try it sometime.

    • bucklaw

      What is the value of a lost customer over a lifetime?

  • Bill

    As much as I agree with this article, being snarky only lowers yourself to their level. You could of responded differently and still accomplished the same thing.

    • shankman

      Yeah, probably. But I was incredulous. It was seven cents.

    • 12_3

      Could have or could’ve, but not could of. Could of is not a real use of grammar. I don’t care if you consider this comment snarky.

  • David Delagarza

    It’s as much a problem with the system as the worker. As an one time cashier myself, I can attest that it is important that the till balances out at the end of the day. Even small discrepancies (plus or minus) are enough to cause problems. This is an important part of a loss prevention strategy, as $0.07 becomes $1.00, becomes $100.

    There’s an easy fix though – empower your employees to enter small discounts to deal with things like this. She easily could have entered a $0.07 discount, making the total $10.00 – however employees won’t know this unless given direction to do so. I think making that recommendation to management is a better course of action than abandoning the business altogether. Of course, your cashier could have probably handled it with less attitude, “Sorry, my till has to balance at the end of the day, and I can’t keep track of things like that,” instead of the the cold response she gave you.

    • shankman

      THANK YOU, David. That’s the key. It comes from top down. Always does.

    • Ross Felix

      David: Great response.

  • My favorite spot for soup, a mom-n-pop shop who only takes cash, did the exact opposite for me recently. I was a dollar short and told them I would have to come back another time when I had enough cash on hand. The woman behind the counter (who I think was the owner) didn’t know me at all and told me, “Nonsense! Just pay us back next time you are in.” It completely made my day and guaranteed my loyalty.

    I was sure to come back soon, with an extra dollar and thanked them again.

  • Guest

    I think most of you are missing this completely. Whomever wrote this article has owned up and said yes they have every right to charges $10.07 when then the total is $10.07….
    I feel the point is… Did they really feel the need to lose part of what makes them survive in their business for 7 measley cents. Like the calculations stated, they are losing out on a lot more than they were willing to give/help out.
    That is what this world has become, no one is willing to lend a hand it’s all bout me me me.

    I understand the whole coming out of ones paycheck and making the till balance correctly. If that is the case she should have seriously taken the next step and involving the manager… Too simple

  • Krista Carnes

    The thing about Zombies is that they all start out as humans – and this cashier missed the chance to be human in the scenario. That’s square one in any business.

    Follow up question: does the same deli have a minimum charge for using credit cards (which I’ve been told is not legal) so they don’t have to pay a fee for a convenient alternative?

  • Tammy Schmidt

    I think many of you are looking at this from a priviledged perspective, as people who have never worked behind a counter.
    If she is going to get fired when her drawer is off by .07 at the end of the day, she has bigger problems than you do.
    If ts is a mom and pop shop, the cashier may have some leeway to dismiss 7 cents. If it’s a corporate franchise, it means she has to be more concerned about keeping her job.
    Now, if he was dealing directly with the deli owner, then yes, she could have given him grace for the seven cents.
    The real problem here isn’t the seven cents, it’s understanding everyone’s bottom line.

    • bucklaw

      Unfortunately, I worked at a place that would write you up for being short a penny. I have also been on the end where I didn’t have a penny, at a store I shopped at often didn’t want to budge. We had a standoff.

      • erik

        If people don’t have enough sense to not work at an establishment where they do NOT fear losing their jobs over seven cents, do not blame the customer. Do not hide behind ‘its the only job I could find’ or “you are looking at this from a priviledged [sic] perspective”. If you can’t figure out the difference between a toxic environment and a non-toxic environment, do not blame the customer because they can.

        • Your comment reads as if you’ve never been in dire economic circumstances with limited options. You very well may be looking at it from a privileged perspective.

          She didn’t blame the customer. She simply stated that the $.07 was due and non-negotiable. It’s very likely that English is her second language and limited at that.

          The deli owner/management failed everyone in this case.

        • dyna

          @lksugarman has a point. Sometimes the toxic job is the only patch you have while looking for another. And sometimes that looking can take a long while. The only logical place for blame to fall, here, is on the shop owner who clearly creates and influences this sort of environment.

  • Ross Felix

    BTW — one additional point. I believe that credit cards charge at least a 2% fee, right? So if Peter had been forced to switch to a credit card to pay the full $10.07 they’d have lost at least $0.20 to the credit card company. So it’s actually cheaper to forgive the $0.07 even if they never get it, rather than force him to switch to the credit card… that’s just hard math — doesn’t even take the “customer service to a loyal customer.”

  • Bruce Bernfeld

    Maybe she found out that morning that her child has cancer. We have to try and realize the world does not revolve around us!!

  • John Fischer

    I love teaching great CS, and deli’s can see the biggest benefit from great CS. Here is a post, I would share with them on the 3 steps to great customer service:
    http://www.stickergiant.com/blog/3-steps-to-great-customer-service/

  • Kim Heacox

    1. It is very important to empower employees to make these type of decisions OR the owner/manager be available to make them. We truly don’t know the reasoning behind her refusal… possibly a lack of funds herself in case she has to make up a short cash drawer, or a cultural difference based on not saying 10 dollars (plural).

    2. However… I can’t decide if I would rather you put the name of the business or not. 7 cents isn’t worth giving the actual business bad press, but it can inadvertently put a bad light on the other 4 delis on the block.

    3. We trade pennies every day with the convenience store next our shop…. thank goodness. Some days you NEED that 3pm chocolate bar!

  • I hope the lady that gave you the 7 cents bought lottery tickets and hits it big tonight 🙂

  • David G

    I own a pizzeria…I like to role play scenarios like this with my team. My favorite scenario is…a customer orders over the telephone and shows up 15 minutes later to pick up their pizza. They only have a $100 bill and we don’t have change to break it. Getting change from a neighboring business is not an option. What do you do? The answer I teach is give the pizza to the customer for FREE. If we deny them because of our lack of change, they go away hungry and mad and we’re still out the cost of the pizza since it’s already made. If we give it away free, we’ve most likely created an extremely loyal customer and we are out the same amount as if we sent the customer away. Experience shows that most people even though not asked to come back the same day or the next day with the money and leave a large tip in the tip jar.

  • I was buying cat treats at the pet store I shop at at least once a week. The amount was so low and I didn’t have any cash on me. Instead of making me go get money or deny my sale, they just told me to pay then for it the next time I was there…which was less than a week later.

  • Rachel Anne Wittrock

    True, but everything in moderation. I worked for a place that frequently bent the rules for not just the loyal customers, but everyone in the community. The end result? The community learned they did not have to adhere to the deadline because their business would never be turned away. In the end it was costing the company thousands of dollars because of errors and copy left out because of the rushed time and last minute copy. Part time employees had to work longer hours as a result. Relationshops were damaged and business lost because of a “too eager to please” business model. But in your case, yes, give a regular customer a 7 cent break.

  • Beth Kovinsky Blacker

    I had a very similar thing happen years ago at a very popular Upper Westside gourmet store. They had fruit outside that was cheaper than the inside fruit because it was close to being over ripe or rotten. I grabbed a few peaches on my way on to buy about $100 of other stuff, got to the register and was asked whether the fruit was from inside or out. It was an honor system but the cashier that day didn’t believe me. Neither did the manager. The difference was 36 cents. I asked if it was worth losing not only $100 in purchases from me that day but any future purchases was told if they “gave in” to me they’d have to for everyone . I left everything and walked out and never returned.

  • celestbenn

    Easy solution to all you “I’ve worked at….” “Big corp…” “Small mom & pop” Pete all she had to do was call over the manager, say hey this guys one of our great customers and I need your “Pope key to work it’s magic” for 7 cents. Now she’s a hero, he’s/she’s managers a hero, and you might bring back a Starbucks card for the cashier when she gets off with and extra 7 cents for the store. How do I know this? Becasue that’s what’s supose to happen….btw great book you wrote….

    • moiraeve1

      Agreed! The clerk was clearly a person who had trouble making life decisions when life throws a curve ball.

      • celestbenn

        thanks moiraeve!

      • New York is a city full of recent immigrants working at jobs just like this. Their English is limited. Their employment options are limited. Many times they’re the poor relatives who’ve just come over and are working insane hours for their more successful relative. They’re working for minimum wage…maybe. Relative or not, her boss may be tough and demanding of adherence to his/her rules.

        When you’re in that kind of circumstance, you don’t feel you’re in a position to deviate from what you’ve been ordered to do. It has nothing and everything to do with making life decisions, because the wrong decision can land you on the sidewalk out of a job.

        • dyna

          Further it’s quite possible the clerk was on the only person running the shop at the time. There are plenty of small delis where this is the case. There was, perhaps, no one else to call over.

  • Dianne Davis

    Peter – – incredulous!!!! One thing though! I really want you to give this place of business the benefit of the doubt. Talk to the owner/manager. Maybe they had just had an all-staff meeting and one of the topics was cash drawer shortages. Maybe it was a huge issue with many overage problems. I dunno! But as a small business owner I would want the opportunity to right the wrong of one staffer who clearly made a very bad choice over the tiniest little thing!!!!! My .02 or perhaps my .07!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ana-Marie Jones

    Peter, I truly hope you make it a teachable moment for the business. Your generosity in the face of sub-optimal customer service could change their business forever. I don’t know her back-story, so I can’t say whether she is the outlier at that business, or whether she is the representation of poor management and training — but I can easily imagine a future blog post …”The Seven Cent Success Story.” Yay you!

  • Sandra Poirier Smith

    JUST last night my college age daughter and I drove by a new non-chain, fun smoothie place (she is their ideal customer!). As we passed, she wondered aloud if they were still in business as she had tried it once. I asked her what she thought. She told me she and her boyfriend had ordered two smoothies, which came to $10.10. Embarrassed at not realizing they only took cash, she handed them all her money, a $10 bill, promising to return with the 10 cents. They insisted on the 10 cents. She had to dig pockets, return to her car and search floor and found it. She said while the smoothie was great, she gets an uncomfortable, embarrassed feeling every time she drives by and therefore has no interest in returning. They lost a regular customer, and one who would have told all her friends about it. All for 10 cents. Also, at college, she works the counter at a pizza place and depends on the tip jar to boost her minimum wage income. When she is the customer, she always tips generously.

  • Chris

    I’ve had similar things happen to me on a much larger scale. The first was with the condo my wife and I lived in after we were married. We were going to build a house, but did not have a guaranteed timeline for completion, so after a year in the condo, we wanted to extend our lease by 9 months and then month-to-month after that. It ended up taking 16 months after this time to complete the house. The landlords (owners) refused to come to any kind of agreement that was flexible enough for us to end our lease on anything other than a 12 month renewal, so we moved into an apartment down the road that was willing to work with us. We know for a fact that our old condo sat empty for more than a year because of this action.
    Because of their attitude, the landlords not only lost great tenants and a guaranteed 9 months of rental income, they lost over a year’s worth of rental income from anyone.
    The second instance was our former propane company at said house. The original company was bought out and the new company, after literally months of poor communication, refused to come to a compromise about our propane tank. It turns out we didn’t use nearly as much propane as we thought we would, and the best solution would have been for us to buy the tank outright and get it filled when needed. The new company refused to sell us the existing tank (“we don’t do that anymore”) and with that, six years of guaranteed gas fills and also refused to negotiate on their other terms (different from the original supplier, like tank rental fees, etc.). Therefore, we switched companies to one who was willing to work with our usage patterns. This one may seem like standard practice in the propane industry, but to me it is another example of how a company’s inflexibility causes a loss of revenue.

  • It’s not as if you were playing “let’s make a deal”. I’m really surprised they haven’t done the smart thing and offered you a frequent buyer card, or something like that. Or, like David D said, maybe in that situation empower the employee to offer a small discount. Jeez.

  • sschudy

    In a casual food service setting, I usually tell my clients to have a tip jar right at or very near the register. It’s a very good way to gauge over time the customers perception of their experience. (You can divide the tips monthly among the employees as a bonus, and they experience ROI on the customer experience) Also, many people who would not think to tip, will throw the spare change in, even if it’s so they don’t have to carry it around. So, if you occasionally have the above situation where someone comes up a little short, etc. the cashier can respond with something like “lets take care of that for you this time”, with a smile, and use the tips.

    Empowers the employees, and imagine what happens with the tips when the people in line watch something like that happen. (And no worries about the till balancing 😉 –

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