January 18, 2013

The Brown Couch Principle: A Parable of Great Customer Service

The Brown Couch Principle: A Parable of Great Customer Service

I like to use stories and anecdotes to make a point or explain a business principle. The Brown Couch Principle is one of my favorite parables of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

In the spring of 2007, my wife Tracy and I were getting ready to move into a new home in Nassau County, Long Island. We were shopping in a store on the East End of the Island, and met the owner, Elizabeth Dow. We wound up ordering a brown custom-designed couch. When the couch arrived that summer, it was just not what we expected. The order was absolutely correct, but when we saw it in our new home, it just wasn’t right. Through no fault of Elizabeth’s, we were dissatisfied with our purchase.

Elizabeth took the high road. Although she had no obligation, she took the couch back and gave us a full refund. Not only would this have been superior service for a longstanding customer, this was the first time we were doing business with her! We subsequently visited her store on several occasions. In fact, in the following three months, we probably spent several multiples of what the original couch cost.

When we went on to buy a house out East the following year, Elizabeth not only sold us most of the furniture, but collaborated with Tracy on designing everything for the house. In fact, she became a crucial collaborator on all of our design projects. Time and again, whenever we had a need, Elizabeth was there to help us. We never even considered working with anyone else.

Because of our mutual trust in our relationship, in 2010 we actually went into business together.  Elizabeth, Tracy and I formed a partnership to buy and renovate houses on the East End.

I guess you could say that first encounter with the brown couch turned into a very profitable run for Elizabeth with us. Not only did she end up doing significantly more business with us than our initial couch experience would indicate, but we’ve referred her to two different friends who have both engaged her for their home renovation projects.

This story carries a lesson for us all about how doing the right thing for a customer or client is always the right business decision. Elizabeth didn’t need a business degree or a how-to book to know that taking back the brown couch was the right thing to do. Good customer service is good customer service, and good customer service has predictable results. Had she been shortsighted and focused only on the profit she would be forfeiting on that first order, we may never have visited her store again. But by taking the high road during that first transaction, she turned us into loyal customers, business partners and most important, friends.

It is not always easy to make clients happy, particularly in a regulated industry like ours which requires Marcum to maintain our independence and objectivity at all times. At Marcum, our objective is to treat our clients the way Elizabeth treated Tracy and me in 2007. If you’re one of our clients and we’re not meeting your service expectations, please call or write me. We take client service and satisfaction very seriously and want to meet if not exceed your expectations. It’s a formula for long-term success and relationships that pay dividends for clients, the Firm and everyone on the team.

P.S. While this column is about customer service and satisfaction, you really need to know a little bit more about Elizabeth. Her original, hand-painted wallcoverings are in the permanent collection of The Smithsonian and her wallcoverings were used in the Obama renovation of the Oval Office.

Visit her web sites at: