July 02, 2012

Too Good To Be True

It must be the horse-trader in me but I like the idea of a bargain as much as the next man. And so I find it difficult to ignore the offers that come my way courtesy of the various online dealers that negotiate rates with hotels, restaurants and other providers on my behalf. But that same horse-trader sometimes wonders how so many of those businesses can afford to give away the value they offer and yet turn a profit.

And, of course, so many of them can't. Two recent experiences showed up the difference that a fine margin and no margin at all can make.

In the first, I took up an offer from a dentist, which included an examination, x-rays and clean and polish. My visit was as much a pleasure as any visit to the dentist can be. I was greeted warmly, quizzed professionally on the details of my health, and expertly examined and treated. The dentist then took an extra few minutes to review my x-rays with me, before producing an outsized toothbrush and set of teeth in order to demonstrate to me the correct way to brush my teeth. He had rightly gathered that I had been cleaning my teeth in a certain way for many years, and showed me a different method which he assured me would be just as effective without being quite so hard in terms of wear and tear.  I left his surgery intent on giving him my business next time I needed to make a dental appointment.

My second experience couldn't have been more different. I booked a meal at a restaurant that offered a menu at a price that seemed to me to be too good to be true. And so it proved. I arrived with a friend for our meal and was greeted by a surly waiter who showed us to a section reserved for those using coupons. We were then given a menu devised for those dining on the special offer. Determined to make a point, it seemed, our waiter then clumsily reminded us that our choice was limited to the items on that menu.

It didn't stop there. Throughout the evening, our waiting staff made it very clear that they thought we were cheapskates, nuisance customers who were more trouble than we were worth. In 'coupon ghetto', service was slow and churlish, whilst elsewhere guests enjoyed something closer to friendly and attentive service. Closer to, but not quite there, because the atmosphere on the wrong side of the tracks had clearly poisoned the atmosphere in that particular restaurant and an unpleasant air of resentment lingered like a bad smell from the kitchen.

What a difference a fine margin and no margin at all can make. At the dentist, it was evident to me that he had done his sums properly and made sure it was worth his while to examine and treat me at the special rate. His service was brisk but thorough and I had no sense at any stage that I was an unwelcome patient.  His counterpart at the restaurant obviously hadn't crunched the numbers with the same diligence, and me and my friend were clearly bad guests as far the restauranteur and his colleagues were concerned.

Of course, it's not just coupon deals that can be too good to be true. Time was when the words 'bargain' and 'deal' meant that both buyer and seller benefitted from the arrangement. That's often no longer the case. Horse-traders of old were mindful that each party to a deal had to 'leave something on the table for the other'. Otherwise, the bargain was bad for business.

It's not just sellers who need to be aware of this. As buyers, we should resist the urge to choose cut-price rates that clearly leave no value on the table for the seller. if it seems to good to be true, then it usually is. But, as always, responsibility ultimately lies with the seller. When we go to market, we must ensure that the bargains we strike are good for business; otherwise, we serve both ourselves and our customers badly.

And that's a bad deal for everyone.

Over To You: What do you think? Have you shook hands on a deal that was just too good to be true and regretted it?

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