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How Far Business Owners Should Go to Keep Customers Happy

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Practically Speaking is a weekly column that addresses your most pressing business dilemmas. The advice is the opinion of long-time business owner Gene Marks. Send your questions to

I run a restaurant, and Saturday night is always our busiest. Last Saturday, we were completely full. That morning one of our very best regulars called me and pleaded for a table for four people because she had her family in unexpectedly from out of town. She said she knew it was short notice, but pressed me to accommodate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, and I knew that she was not happy. Did I make the right decision?

You did.

For starters, I sympathize. Anyone who runs a business doesn’t like to admit it, but our biggest and best customers usually get priority treatment. I’ve more than once rescheduled jobs and redirected products targeted for other orders to my better customers in lieu of others. While growing your business with new customers is important, there is nothing more important than serving your existing (and best customers) first. We learn in business school that it’s much less expensive to get work from our existing customers than to find new ones – and it’s true. Treating those customers better and with preference – even if it’s to the detriment to other customers – is commonplace.

But in the restaurant business, things are different. Customers are fickle. They move. They get bored. In this business, new customers are always needed. And c’mon – even good customers know that making reservations too late – means that the chances of getting a table at a good restaurant could be next to impossible. Apologize profusely. But honor the reservations already made. Doing otherwise will not only upset those potential future good customers, but in this age of social media services, like Yelp and Open Table, it could turn away others who read the story of how you treated them. And besides, if your food is so good, those “loyal” patrons will be back, right?

I’m in the landscaping business, which is very competitive. There are a couple of my competitors who always seem to be beat me on price. Although I have no definitive proof, I am convinced that they are hiring illegal immigrants and paying them less than what I pay my employees. Is it right to report them?

Yes, illegal immigration is a big election-year issue. And yes, our candidates have come up with a few controversial ideas for not only keeping illegal immigrants out of the country but also deporting them as well. The bottom line is that illegal immigration is a tough issue. If you report your competitor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then your actions may wind up affecting the immigrants who are trying to earn a living and support their families. And if your competitor finds out that it was you who reported him then it could have other repercussions. So what do you do?

You report him. He’s breaking the law. And frankly, as heartbreaking as it is, so are those working for him. Just make sure the reporting will be done anonymously.