Throwing Away Your Business

Feb. 1, 2009
OK, put yourself in the DIY renter's shoes for a minute and picture this. It's a Monday, and you have taken a couple of days off to rebuild the backyard

OK, put yourself in the DIY renter's shoes for a minute and picture this.

It's a Monday, and you have taken a couple of days off to rebuild the backyard fence. First, you have some old chain-link fence posts to cut off. You go to the nearest rental store. The counterperson says, “Well, maybe you could use a cutoff saw — it's $33 for four hours.”

Seems like overkill, but you tell the counterperson “OK.”

But now she looks a little uneasy and turns hesitantly to repeat your request to someone standing with his back to the counter. He appears to be the head man. All he says is, “Not today.” He doesn't turn around.

The counterperson turns to face you and says, “We don't rent tools after 1 p.m.” You check your watch. It's 2 p.m. The store closes at 5. It's a job you can do in 30 minutes and have the tool back inside an hour, tops. You are astonished and don't know quite what to say. You're thinking, what, do I just read a book the rest of the day? After a few seconds of uneasy silence, she adds, “It's policy,” and slides a notice across the counter. Sure enough, “No tool rentals after 1 p.m.,” it says. And also, “Closed Tuesday afternoons.”

The counterperson is sort of shrugging sheepishly, as if it is a thing that has no conceivable solution, and the man in charge is still backed up to the counter, so you speak to his back: “OK, so where can I get a cutoff saw today, do you think? I'd really like to get those posts out today.” He says, without turning around, “Maybe Sunbelt or RSC.” He's not unpleasant about it, just matter-of-fact; there's a policy, and it's not his problem.

Unthinkable? Think again. It actually happened. I know. I was there: I was the renter.

Sunbelt and RSC are both about six miles across the city, but a big True Value hardware store with a rental department is nearby, so I went there. The rental guy greeted me with enthusiasm and listened carefully to what I was trying to do. He nodded and suggested various options. The cutoff saw was way too much for a job like that, he said — no point in going to that kind of expense. “That's such a small job, you know the best thing would just be to buy a steel-cutting blade for your circular saw,” he said. “It will do that job just fine and it's a lot cheaper” — $4.06, it was.

As I was driving away, with the saw blade, I thought, “Man! People are throwing business away, and the smart cookies are picking it up!”

This little story may have a familiar ring to a lot of rental people — not from their own experience, thank heaven, but because of the case-study approach that I frequently took as editor of Rental Management. In my visits to rental stores I always liked to find little nuggets of customer service and draw some “best practices” from them. Sometimes I found some “worst practices,” too, but fortunately that was very rare.

The guy at True Value was only too glad to help. He talked to me, face to face. He made me feel welcome. He took personal interest. He suggested options, he made a recommendation. He could have charged me a bundle, but — above all — he made it clear that his real purpose was to solve my problem. I spent $4.06, not $33. “We're open 'til 6,” he added, “and if you do rent a tool, you can keep it until we open tomorrow, no problem.”

Next time I want to rent a tool, where do you suppose I will go first? $4.06 — I'd have been glad to spend 10 times that much, just for the good advice. For the store, that $4.06 wasn't a loss of $29, it was an investment in my continuing business.

Now, exclusively rental people may not all be thrilled by competition from hardware stores, but consider the moral of this story: If somebody else is eating your lunch, make sure you don't set the table for them.

Brian Alm worked in the rental and construction industries for 30 years, including 17 years with Deere & Co., primarily as a manager of corporate communications, and 10 years as editor of Rental Management magazine.