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Posted: October 04, 2012

A customer’s tale

Listening is worth it

David Sneed

We’ve all dealt with customers, right? And we’ve all been customers, too. Well, some of us with money to spend are crazy and demanding and wrong. Sometimes, we can be that person a business just doesn’t need right now. I recently had a customer like that.

At first, Judy seemed just a bit too picky. I was about to turn down the job; frankly, if she was this demanding before we even did anything, I could imagine how she'd be when the work started.

But something in the tone she used made me overlook her obsession with tree roots and fence posts. During the next week, we talked, and here's the story she told me:

Judy and her father were inseparable. For as long as she could remember, she adored him. A military man, he would hurry home from the base just to be with her. He made her feel special and happy and loved.

When she was nine, her dad took her to see his old home in Massachusetts - near Amherst, on the Connecticut River.  It was autumn: The trees blazed and the air blew sharp as the pair walked the fields her dad had roamed when he was her age.

He showed her the creek, and the old barn and the farmhouse at the bottom of the hill where his first sweetheart had lived. He used to sled on that hill.

As the light began to fade, they gathered a handful of acorns in the forest. Judy was sad to leave, but her father explained that nothing lasts forever – and somehow, that put her little heart at ease. Judy carried those acorns back to Denver in a brown paper bag that never left her sight.

It was a struggle, but Judy and her dad managed to germinate one of the seeds in a paper cup. The next summer, they dug and planted that tiny tree behind the house her father bought for them. They watered it, and cared for it and watched it grow.

Both Judy and the tree grew. When she was 14, Judy’s father went to Vietnam and never came back.

That little girl still lives in the same small house her father was so proud to buy. Dated and worn, it isn’t much to look at. Dated and worn, Judy still has the tree she raised from the place where her dad grew up.

She never married. The only man who never hurt her had gone long ago.

Visit today, and you'd see an average house, on an average street, with an average fence behind an average tree. That average-looking fence was built with extra care. I know, because I built it. She trusted me to build it, and I was happy; and sad; and glad I overlooked her obsession with tree roots and fence posts. 

Customers (you and me included) can be neurotic and cranky and weird.  But sometimes, if you spend a little time, you’ll find that the baggage they bring to the deal is more important to them than you can ever imagine. And if you can really understand what they care about, you'll have yourself a friend.

David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

I like this article a lot, given its truth and empathy. In my practice of wills, trusts and probate administration, I see a lot of clients who come to me while a loved one is ill, or right after someone has passed. They are never at their best, and i have to remind myself of that when they are cranky, have outbursts about the bill or otherwise are not as easy to deal with as another client at a different time in their life. well done! By Jo Kitto on 2012 10 05
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