by Niall Doherty

Cheese squeeze

Pretty much every afternoon here in Cusco I walk down to el Mercado Central de San Pedro, a big covered market right in the center of town. It’s about what you’d expect a traditional South American market to be like. There are rows of sewing machines out front of stalls selling brightly colored blankets, end-to-end tables overflowing with all kinds of baked goods, fifty middle-aged juice ladies stood shoulder-to-shoulder waving their laminated menus at you, endless sleepy butchers and fruit vendors, abounding baskets of nuts and seeds and seafood, plus a whole expanse of greasy spoon spots, where you can have your fill for a dollar and change.

But I’m usually there for the cheese.

About halfway down the market’s main thoroughfare, you’ll find two old ladies in traditional dress huddled behind a spread of cheese and vegetables. The lady guarding the cheese is especially ancient. Most days she’s fast asleep when I stop by. The odd time I find her awake, it takes two or three utterances of “buenas tardes” at various volumes to catch her attention. Usually the other, slightly younger old lady with the status hat will come over to serve me. I always ask for a single sol’s serving of cheese (about $0.35), and she cuts me off a fat wedge. I smile and bid the ladies muchas gracias and stroll back up the hill happily gnawing away on my chunk of bliss.

Last Thursday I dropped by the market as per usual, only to find my elderly cheese angels absent. Fighting back the despair, I hunted around the market for someone else to deliver my fix. Eventually I came upon two cheese stalls side-by-side, with various flavors of the yellow and white stuff spread out along. I approached the stall at left and pointed to the wad I wanted. Unfortunately, that particular cheese belonged to the other stall, the owner of which was busy attending to another customer.

Left Stall Lady pointed toward a paler variety of cheese in front of her and assured me that it was one and the same, just colored different. “Bien,” I said, “Cuanto puedo tener por un sol?”

A few minutes later I was out of the market and taking my first bite of that cheese. Was it the same divine flavor I was used to?

Hell no.

This cheese sucked. It had a weak taste and a texture like wet rubber. I realized that Left Stall Lady had purposely misled me to make a single measly sale. She could have listened and acknowledged that the cheese I really wanted was available from the stall next door, and suggested I wait patiently until her neighbor was free to serve me.

But no. She saw a quick and easy opportunity to snatch a silver coin, and she took it.

Waist Land

I’d been having belt issues. A rip in the leather meant a half-inch of elastic was all that was saving me from an epic trouser fail. A spot of street shopping was in order to remedy the situation.

But I’m pretty picky when it comes to buying clothes. Since I’m constantly on the move, I try keep my wardrobe light. So I have to make every item count. When buying jeans for example, it’s typical for me to try on a dozen or more pairs and walk out of several different stores before finally making a purchase. The way I look at it, good enough isn’t good enough. Given that I’ll be wearing those jeans almost daily going forward, I have to love them. They better fit good and look great.

My first stop on the belt hunt was a store spilling out onto the street alongside San Pedro market. I tried on three different strips, all of which were okay (meaning none were suitable). I could see the shopkeeper losing his patience as I turned my nose up at each suggestion he made. Eventually I bid him adíos and walked away.

I dipped in and out of several more stores on down the street. Only once did I find a belt I liked, but it was a tad too short so I kept moving. Eventually I came to a U-shaped market stacked with stalls. Right in off the street was a belt display stand and I picked up my perusal as the lady shopkeeper looked on. Again finding nothing quite to my liking, I was about to move along when said lady pointed me down the way to another stall with a bounty of belts. It was there that I eventually found what I was looking for.

Walking back out of that market, my pants riding a little higher, I thanked that lady for her assistance. She hadn’t made the sale, but she’d helped me get what I wanted and built up some goodwill with a neighbor by sending business their way.

The difference

Maybe the cheese lady was the smart one. With her aggressive and misleading salesmanship, she’ll probably make a lot more profit than the belt lady. Especially if she saves the pushy tactics for tourists like me, who are unlikely to stick around, spread the word, and soil her reputation.

But I come away from such experiences asking myself what kind of world I want to live in, and the answer is a world where maximizing profit isn’t the top priority. Instead, in the world I want to live in, the important thing is to help people get their needs met, even if that means recommending they take their business elsewhere.

I do my best to apply this principle in my own business. I’ll tell prospective clients straight up if they’d be better off hiring someone else other than me, or availing of a free solution. This definitely costs me in the short-term, but in the long-term I build a lot of trust and make more money. I also feel much better about myself knowing that I have my clients’ best interests at heart.

What pet peeves do you have as a customer?

I’m sure you’ve been inspired from bad commerce experiences to better serve people in your own business. Tell me how in the comments.

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