Here’s some free advice on how to run the worst gun store ever — and you know what they say about free advice, right? It’s worth exactly what you paid for it!

But seriously, we’re going to share some true, and sometimes eye-popping, customer experience stories. Yes, some of your competitors really are making these types of blunders — I kid you not.

The reason I’m sharing them here isn’t just to poke fun. OK, well maybe just a little.

The real reason I want to share these disasters is to offer up examples of proven ways to do a much better job than the subjects of my stories. Succeeding in retail is all about standing out from the crowd, right?

Let’s get to it, shall we? Here are four easy steps to becoming the worst gun store ever. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

1) Act like everything is the customer’s problem.

I left a handgun for sale as a consignment piece at a local gun store. One day, I went in to see if there had been any interest. After a long search, no one working that day could find my gun — it wasn’t in the display case. One employee conjectured that another had taken it out of town for a weekend of shooting. OK, hold the phone! My gun that you’re being paid to sell is not in the display case on a weekend for buyers to see, because one of your employees has taken it out to play? Seriously?

It gets better — well, worse, actually.

I called back Monday morning and was told that my gun was most likely stolen by a shoplifter. I went into the store the next day to resolve the situation and get my money. The owner of the business wanted to pay the lowest figure of the asking price range for my gun as “the money was coming out of his pocket.” Incredulous, I reminded him that my gun was going to turn up at a crime scene one day as a result of their sloppy security. Also, I had, in good faith, entrusted his business to sell my gun for a fee. The theft was entirely the store’s problem, not mine. He got very cranky and begrudgingly paid me my asking price while pouting and ceasing to acknowledge my existence.

Let me get this straight. A business loses my property to theft and they want me to assume part of the financial cost of their carelessness? Trust me, I get it. Crime can happen to the most conscientious retail operator. If it does, don’t try to shift the responsibility to the customer.

Needless to say, I haven’t set foot in that place since and never will again. Worse, I’ve told that story to many others. And to think, all that ill will resulted from a difference of opinion of about $50.

The lesson — the buck stops with you. Make things right for the customer, always.

You might have heard stories about the retail department store Nordstroms; its culture of owning every customer problem is legendary. My favorite Nordstroms story is about a customer who came into a store trying to return a set of car tires.

To be clear, Nordstroms is a high-end department store and has never sold car tires or anything else that goes on a vehicle for — ever. Yet, operating under a culture of “the customer is always right,” the store manager accepted the return and issued the customer a refund. Even as a customer service fanatic, I have trouble with that particular scenario, but I get why they did it.

If you are going to own customer problems then do it consistently and fanatically. I’m not suggesting that you start accepting returns of llama vitamins at your gun store, but I am suggesting that you implement a culture of doing the right thing for your customers. In the Nordstroms story, I doubt the tire customer rewarded them with a lifetime of repeat purchases, but think about the word of mouth benefits — literally worldwide.

How do you implement this type of culture? Put the word out among your staff. Then, be sneaky and spy on them. When you catch an employee doing something awesome for a customer, publicly praise and reward them for it. You can put some meat behind that kind of program by giving your floor associates a customer satisfaction budget. Allow each person a dollar value limit to immediately make things right with a customer, before an issue has to be escalated to management. Heck, find a special buy on some accessory and stockpile them in the back room. When warranted, encourage employees to give them out to customers who are upset. “We’re sorry we didn’t live up to your expectations. As a token of our thanks, please accept this small gift.”

2) Don’t bother communicating with customers. It’s extra work.

In this business, I’m constantly getting guns shipped my way for test and evaluation. As a result, I’ve always worked with local FFLs to receive these guns and handle the Form 4473. I pay them for each gun, and they handle the transaction and records management. It’s a pretty straightforward and mutually beneficial business transaction.

One gun store that knows me well and has my name and phone number readily accessible received a gun I didn’t know was coming. They checked it in and stuck it on the “ready to pick up” pile. Then, they proceeded to look at it — right there on top of the pile behind the front counter— every single working day for four entire months. Four months!

I didn’t know this particular gun was coming, so I didn’t ask them about the status.

One day, I got an email from the manufacturer, asking me how the evaluation on this particular gun was going. Not knowing anything about it, I quickly figured out it had been shipped to this gun store four months prior. I called the FFL asking about the gun and was told there was no gun waiting on me. specifically.

I pressed on, indicating we had a delivery signature proving that it had been received months prior. The clerk told me they had another location and it must have been sent there. I pressed more, indicating the delivery was indeed sent to this location.

“Oh, yeah, here it is,” was the response.

When I dropped by the store to pick it up, I asked them if it had been too much trouble to call me. The paperwork in the box with the gun had a big note indicating it was for me and even included my cell phone number.

“Oh, we figured you would come by to pick it up,” was the reply.

Wow, who knew picking up the phone was that much of a chore?

The lesson — proactive communication is always better, even if it’s bad news.

I know I already told a negative story to illustrate this point, but here’s another one along with a lesson of how not to fall into the same trap.

A well-known gun manufacturer was hopelessly backlogged during the great gun buying panic of 2013. They were understandably tired of answering the phone and telling people they had no idea when their orders would ship. Their answer was to stop communicating with customers entirely. They put a big banner on their website saying not to call because they had no idea when rifles would ship.

That approach might have saved them some phone time, but it was the absolute worst response they could have made. Customers were understandably furious and vented online everywhere about the poor customer service of the company. In the absence of information, people will always assume things are worse than reality, so the problem of dissatisfaction exploded.

I absolutely get it. During that period of pandemonium, the uncertainty was very real. Companies relied on parts from suppliers and no one knew when anything was shipping. It was a difficult problem that was no one’s fault, but a truly outstanding businesses should always rise to the occasion and make the best of the hand they’re dealt.

So what would have been the correct response? Consider these two potential customer communications.

“Stop calling us. The entire industry is in chaos right now due to unprecedented demand. We have no idea when we will receive raw materials, so we have no idea when your rifle will ship. It will ship when it ships, so stop asking.”

— or —

“The unprecedented demand in our industry is making it nearly impossible to provide accurate forecasts. We know this is frustrating for you as a customer. It’s also frustrating for us that we can’t provide you better service. We’ll send you an email once a week to let you know what’s going on, even if we don’t have definite answers. We ask for your patience and understanding during this difficult time and we will do our absolute best to keep you up to date. In the meantime, if you have questions, please give us a call.”

On those two communications, the information is exactly the same. The only thing that differs is the second involves the customer, expresses empathy and opens lines of communication. As a customer, even if there is no news or even bad news, I want to hear from you.

There are communication opportunities every day, not just during times of industry stress. Even if your staff members already know the answer to “do you have this product?” or a similar question, customers love to see communication effort.

Think about the times you’re in any retail store and ask if they have an item “in the back.” When a bored-looking rep tells you “No, there aren’t any more,” do you believe them? It’s not a trust issue — it’s a perception issue.

A lackadaisical, automatic response doesn’t inspire much confidence and certainly doesn’t imply that the staff member cares whether they have the item or not. Now think about those times when a clerk said: “If you can wait just a minute, I’d be happy to go in the back and check” — that’s a whole different level of customer experience, even if they don’t have the item in question.

The effort to communicate counts. Even if you aren’t able to provide the answer a customer wants, their perception of your level of concern means everything.

3) Don’t worry about the image your staff presents to customers.

Here’s a true story I couldn’t even make up, and trust me, I fabricate silly stories for a living.

My wife and I were taking a concealed carry class at a well-known local gun store and indoor shooting range. Entering the classroom, we first noticed the walls were plastered with posters of half-naked female gun models. The guys in the class probably didn’t mind too much, but the 40 percent or so of women in the class seemed nonplussed to say the least.

Sure, not the greatest image to convey for your business, but that explained what was to come throughout our eight-hour torture session.

Between actual concealed carry course content segments, our instructor proceeded to relay stories about his cheating wife and how he wanted to shoot her and her beau but decided against it at the last minute. No biggie, who hasn’t done that? And who hasn’t gotten roaring drunk with his friends and shot apples off each other’s heads with .22 rifles? We heard about that, too, from our professor emeritus.

I’m not being judgmental here; I’ve made plenty of dumb decisions in my life. But that doesn’t make it all right for me to tell customers about them at work.

If that wasn’t enough, the assistant faculty member offered to do toe prints for the ladies in the class during the fingerprint section. According to him, he’s got “kind of a foot fetish.” Like I said, I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

The lesson — Your employees are your brand and your reputation.

One of the things I love about the shooting industry is the friendly atmosphere. Even competitors tend to get along as friends more often than not. Some of my best friends are people I work with on a professional basis day in and day out.

You see the same thing in a lot of gun stores. Friends share common interests, so owners and managers tend to hire friends with similar passions. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As I said, it’s one of the things I like best about what we do.

The problem arises when we place friendship above job qualifications and work behavior. Just because someone is a good friend or they love the shooting sports as much as we do isn’t a good enough reason to put them in front of customers. If your friends and shooting acquaintances are the people you want representing you in front of customers, then great. If not, maybe there’s a non-customer facing job they can do.

Many of the gun stores I visit have made deliberate efforts to hire new staff based on attitude and communication skills, not just gun knowledge. Their reasoning is that knowledge can be taught if strong qualities like communication skills and a great attitude are already there.

4) Make sure your team doesn’t try very hard.

One retail store where I did a lot of transfer business, and the occasional purchase, became the butt of a running joke for my family.

They almost immediately developed a reputation for giving incorrect information over the phone simply because they were always too lazy to check and verify.

Almost without fail, every time I called this particular store to inquire whether or not a transfer for me had arrived, I was told, “No, there’s nothing here.” Knowing that the gun in question almost certainly was there, I would press harder.

“Are you sure? It would have been shipped from such and such,” I would say.

“Nope, nothing here,” would usually be the response.

Knowing the drill, I would (as politely as possible at this point) ask them to go look while I held the phone. The inevitable result?

“Oh, yeah, here it is.”

Not surprisingly, this same scenario often played out during store visits as well. A counter person would stare back and simply say “No, nothing here,” without bothering to check.

I don’t know what was more pathetic — the frequency with which this scenario transpired, the fact that the same behavior was exhibited by a variety of people working at the store. Clearly, it was a culture of laziness and lack of customer attentiveness. The management and staff of this store simply didn’t care.

The lesson — Caring goes a long way.

No one cares what you know until they know that you care. While the phrase is intended to be advice for building relationships, it fits really well into the retail environment. In my example story, my attitude as a customer would have been far different had the sales clerks at least pretended to care and made an effort to check if my guns had arrived. Consider some examples.

“Hi, Mr. McHale. I know you’re expecting a Pea-Shooter 2000 revolver, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for it. I don’t think it’s here yet, but let me double check in case I missed it.”

As a related example of the value of caring, have you ever been to a retail store where the sales associate told you they don’t stock an item, and then proceeded to solve your problem anyway? I’m always blown away when a salesperson picks up the phone and calls another location in the same chain to help find my product. The real bonus points are awarded when they point me to another competing business to fill my need. They didn’t have the product I wanted anyway, so why not at least get some goodwill by helping me? I always remember stores with that kind of attitude. They know they’re providing excellent service, so they’re not going to lose your future business because they didn’t have one product on one particular day and referred you elsewhere.

I wish I could take credit for the phrase “no one cares what you know until they know that you care,” or at least offer credit to the original author. It’s golden. It’s also a great way to run a successful business.

All of the examples above can be boiled down to a lack of caring, either by specific employees or, worse, by the owners and managers of the businesses.

Does your staff care as much as you want them to?