It was the Saturday before Christmas and my fever had broken some time in the night, leaving me well enough to finish up my Christmas shopping. I set out with hopes to find everything quickly and hurry home to rest so I would enjoy a healthy holiday season.

Four hours later, I was boiling again, but it wasn’t due to my cold. I was in the third customer service line of the morning — waiting impatiently to resolve the problems with my purchases.

The first store had charged me for the wrong item — one that was three times as expensive. It took me 25 minutes of waiting to correct the mistake.

At the second store, the clerk charged me the right price for all of the items. The problem was that I hadn’t purchased two boxes of cold medication, only one. Another 20 minutes of waiting.

And the third store had overcharged me on several items. I stood in line fuming — and sick — for almost 30 minutes because a new person was being trained at the counter.

It was with great relief that I returned home. A quick unpacking of my purchases and I could crawl back into bed and sleep. It was then that I discovered that two items from the third store had been left out of my bags.

My “fever” went through the roof then, as I realized that I would have to go back to the store to retrieve the missing items — requiring another wait in their customer service line.

So why am I sharing this with you? Because this shopping experience, when I was in a hurry, left me feeling that the retailers were taking advantage of customers due to the closeness of the holidays.

And the real lesson is that it left me angry, vowing to never return to those stores again.

Money matters

Think about how you treat your customers when they have an emergency no-heat or no-a/c situation. Or how you bid a project when you know the owner needs the work completed in two weeks or less because they are expecting houseguests, or have a party planned, etc., and want everything to be in order and price isn’t really an issue.

Do you treat, and more importantly charge, these people the same price as you would without this sense of urgency?

Say a customer calls you in the middle of the night because his/her furnace has stopped working and it’s freezing outside. The homeowner is going to remember and appreciate you a lot more if you charge him/her the same as you would if the problem had been discovered and repaired on a preventive maintenance visit back when it was warm outside, rather than increasing the fees.

If you do have to charge a higher labor fee due to the higher wage you pay your on-call technician, then explain that to the customer. More importantly, let the customer know this when they first call. Also, let them know that it is charged on all after-hours calls so they don’t feel like you’re singling them out because of their problem.

See, in an urgent situation, the customer may feel he/she has no options and he/she is at your mercy. It’s cold outside and he/she needs heat. You’re charging more than he/she is used to, but you’re there and there’s no telling when your competitor — who isn’t familiar with the system — will be able to come and fix it.

So, if you exploit his/her misfortune, you’ll get your extra money. But, who do you think that customer will be calling the next time he/she needs service and who will get that money?

Loyalty: Proportional to treatment

More than anything else, I think people want respect, honesty, and fairness when dealing with service providers. Most people are rational enough to realize that mistakes will be made and that sometimes things will cost more. The difference comes in how they are treated after that mistake or in that more expensive situation.

The most I was overcharged on this horrible shopping day was about $10 — a relatively small amount, but something most people would not walk away from. However, the money wasn’t really what angered me, it was the way I was treated.

When the items were left out of my bags, the store associate on the phone calmly informed me that I could come in at my earliest “convenience” to pick them up.

If the company truly wanted my business, — and was concerned about my convenience — it would have found a way to get these things to me — even if it meant shipping them to me or delivering them by taxicab (at the company’s expense).

It’s an age-old saying, but it still rings true. Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. If you want loyal customers, you have to be loyal to them.

There are so many options available to today’s consumer that companies have to find a way to stand out from the competition — even if that means service with a smile at 3 a.m. and the additional “charge” of requesting some fresh coffee.