Easy to Be a Good Customer

Photo © 2006 Magnes Museum CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I first met Jeffrey Tanner, fictional costar of my short story “The Widow’s Granddaughter,” he told me, “Nice guys finish last.”

I didn’t believe him then, and I still think he was seriously misguided. Fortunately, that character discovered that there is much more to life than alpha-male-ism.

What an appropriate memory for the days around Purim, which fell this year on this past Sunday. Purim is the Jewish celebration of the story of Esther, in which the nice guys actually saved the day, and the get-ahead-no-matter-what villain got what he had coming to him. What goes around comes around, as they say. And there’s some truth to that, despite our base instincts to the contrary.

(If you’re not familiar with the tale, you can read the story of Esther in any Bible or Jewish Tanakh.)

And what originally brought this thought to the forefront, a frustrating, transforming experience last Wednesday, which really brought this principle into focus.

At the complex where I live, far many more people own cars than can fit into the available parking spaces in the lots. Before everyone arrives home for the evening, you might be lucky enough to snatch a space on the street, but even street parking can be difficult to find. For this reason, a couple years ago, the front office implemented a system of parking tags. Each apartment received one tag, which means we can park only one of our two cars in the lot, whichever car we hang the parking tag in. The other car goes out on the street, first-come, first-served.

Now, I drop off my Firstborn at school in the morning, and afterward, I sometimes go home. During the late morning or early afternoon, there’s no parking problem, because everyone’s away at work. So I would park in the lot for a few hours, confident that no one would complain. Yes, I could have easily have parked a few more yards away, in the street. Or I could have arranged to get the parking tag from my Beloved’s car—since she is at work at the time, she would not need to park in the lot. But even that would be more trouble than simply parking in the street. Whatever I do, it has never been a problem…

Until last Wednesday. Without warning, the front office decided to crack down on people who were parking in the lots without a tag. If I knew they were going to start being proactive about calling the tow trucks in, rather than waiting for a complaint, I would have simply parked my car a few yards further away, in the street. Because there were plenty of parking spaces that time of day.

So they towed my car, making me over an hour late to pick up my Firstborn from school.

But that’s not what bugs me. I knew that technically I was breaking the rules, even if I was acting within the spirit of those rules. What bugged me was how poorly they handled the situation. They could have sent a notice around, telling everyone that they had gotten complaints about parking and that they would start cracking down, to be careful where you park and to make sure you have the tag hanging in your car when parked in the lots. And when I explained the situation to the lady in the office, she could have admitted that I was trying to act within the spirit of the rules, and that they could have handled the situation more smoothly. Rather than acting as if they wanted to tow cars, they could have acted as if they wanted to improve the parking situation.

Instead, she reminded me that my lease gives the permission to tow my car, and that I should have known not to park there, because the signs clearly say so—even though those signs have never meant anything before. And she even tried to tell me that her towing my car was good for me—I swear I’m not making any of this up—because it would stop people from illicitly parking in the wrong places and improve the parking situation. (And as I expected, that very night, cars were still illicitly parked in the lots. I know, because I saw them there. Makes sense, because at night is when the problems occur, not in the afternoon when they went trolling for tow kickbacks— er, I mean, went trolling for improperly parked cars.)

There’s one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Ensigns of Command.” (As a Trek-head, I can’t help but tie this into an episode of Star Trek.) In this episode, a legalistic race of aliens, called the Sheliak, discovers a misplaced colony of humans on one of their planets. Against all odds, these humans have managed to prosper on this planet, blasted by radiation that ought to have killed them. The Sheliak treaty says that they may destroy any such human “infestation” at their discretion, which wasn’t expected to be a problem when the treaty was signed.

Now, Picard must negotiate with the Sheliak to keep them from destroying the human colony until the Enterprise can successfully evacuate the colonists. The Sheliak refuse to listen, repeatedly throwing the treaty back in his face. Finally, Picard finds a loophole he can use to his advantage, and use it he does.

He who lives by the treaty falls by the treaty.

And it occurred to me that he who lives by the technicality will also fall by the technicality. After I had that conversation with the office, I decided to find an excuse to move. Maybe I’m not leaving tomorrow, because we at least want to let our lease run out. But I’ve already decided to get out. Why? It’s not about right or wrong. I was clearly in the wrong, as Picard was in the wrong, and as Esther was technically violating the law. It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about do we have a relationship, or don’t we?

My transforming moment occurred when I realized, if our roles were reversed, I would have treated the situation differently. I would never respond to my customers the way the office responded to me. Indeed, I have repeatedly made concessions I haven’t had to make, simply because a customer was clearly trying to be a good customer. Regardless of the letter of the law, I want to make it easy for someone trying to be a good customer to be my customer. Because if I don’t make it easy for those trying to be good customers, ya know what? I’m gonna get those not trying to be good customers.

And if the office doesn’t want to make it easy for people who are trying to be good tenants and good neighbors, they’re going to get more people not trying to be good tenants and good neighbors. And I don’t think I want to live there.

As I said, I’m moving. I just haven’t figured out all the logistics yet.

This blog post has already gone on too long, so I’ll give a counter-example. Last Monday, DreamHost, my web-service provider, had a serious outage. Most DreamHost-hosted websites were down (or only half-up) for most of the day Monday. How did DreamHost handle it? They revealed all on their blog. It’s why I’m still a customer, even after all we’ve gone through together (or perhaps because of it).

The killer line: “‘I’d like compensation.’ You’ve earned it! You pay for 365 days of service – not 364.375. Contact our technical support team and we’ll do what we can to make it right.”

They didn’t need to say that. Our hosting agreement specifically disclaims any downtime. DreamHost knows as well as I do that there’s no way you can guarantee uninterrupted up-time for under $10 a month. Technically, I don’t pay for 365 days of service. I pay for as much service as DreamHost can give me, and if I don’t like it, there are a gazillion other web-service providers anxious for my business.

But DreamHost is one of the biggest hosting companies in the U.S. (Maybe in the world.) And they know well enough that nasty guys don’t get ahead. Only the nice guys do.