Five customer service lessons from history’s dodgiest salesman

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by Sebastion Marx

What can modern marketers learn from a series of 4,000 year old complaint letters? More than you would think.

Reading 1-Star reviews online is a guilty pleasure of mine. There is something uniquely fascinating about reading a complaint from someone so upset that they feel the need to tell the world about it. But the most interesting customer complaint that I ever read wasn’t found online, but instead carved in stone. It was carved by a man named Nanni, who has been dead for almost 4,000 years.

Nanni was a Babylonian merchant who purchased a sum of copper from a salesman by the name of Ea-Nasir. Nanni had already paid Ea-Nasir the silver for the transaction, however, when Nanni’s messenger went to collect the copper, he found it to be of poor quality. Ea-Nasir dismissed the messenger’s complaints, essentially telling him to accept the copper or bugger off – despite still holding on to Nanni’s cash.

When his messenger returned, Nanni was furious, so he pulled out a clay tablet and started carving out a message in cuneiform. Once done, Nannie then handed the tablet to a messenger who carried it on foot to Ea-Nasir, hundreds of kilometers away.

Nanni’s letter of complaint remains in the British Museum to this day – along with two dozen other records of business transactions and letters from what we presume was once Ea-Nasir’s home. To this day it is generally regarded as the oldest customer complaint on record.

Check out the full translation below:

So what lessons can the modern marketer draw from the complaint between Nanni and Ea-Nasir?

1.    A strong customer relationship has value beyond the sales it produces.

Ea-Nasir’s largest customer was the government (palace) in Ur, in one transaction selling almost 2,500kg of copper. In various record and letters it seems that on occasion, Ea-Nasir’s Ur-based customers were asked to deliver a share of the copper he had sent them to the government on his behalf.

Given that moving substantial amounts of copper at this point of history would have been a long process – it is clear that having strong relationships with his other customers in a foreign city gave Ea-Nasir options when his biggest customer needed more.

Likewise, in modern business, treating your customers as partners provides you with opportunities to leverage your relationships further than just as a sales transaction alone.

2.    How you treat your customer’s staff matters.

From Nanni’s perspective, Ea-Nasir’s treatment of his messengers was a reflection on how Ea-Nasir was treating him. One might even wonder just how much disregard was truly meant towards Nanni, and how much had been inflated by the egos of scorned messengers.

Just like Nanni’s messengers, our customer’s staff deserve to be treated with the same respect as our key stakeholders are – regardless of their level in the organization.

3.    A minor complaint can be costly in the long run.

As a result of this complaint, Ea-Nasir faced new processes in doing business with Nanni that likely cost him time and money. For every 10 talons of copper purchased by Nanni, Ea-Nasir would need to show him 20, with Nanni to take the ten of best quality. Furthermore, Nanni’s messengers would no longer collect copper from Ea-Nasir, with Ea-Nasir’s responsible for the delivery of the selection to Nanni’s own yard.

Had Ea-Nasir put the work into this relationship or worked to rebuild Nanni’s trust, this costly outcome may have been avoided.

4.    Embrace past mistakes – don’t cover them up.

The only reason we know of this interaction between Nanni and Ea-Nasir is because Ea-Nasir chose to keep a record. A clay tablet could be easily discarded, particularly in frustration, however for some reason, and to his credit, Ea-Nasir chose to keep it.

We all have experiences in our past that we might prefer to forget about, that we might wish we had handled differently – but it’s only through reflection that we can grow from these mistakes. By critically reviewing our complaints and past mistakes, we can learn from them to ensure they don’t happen again.

5.    Negative customer experiences are the last to be forgotten.

Now it might have been unfair for me to label Ea-Nasir as history’s dodgiest salesman. Looking at the size of his enterprise and the trust that his government contracts reveal, it’s likely that most of the time Ea-Nasir delivered on his promises.

It must have taken a logistical master to transport thousands of kilograms of copper to a city hundreds of kilometers away – long before the internet, telephone or machinery. With this in mind, it’s telling that despite this impressive feat, we are all most interested in the complaints of one of Ea-Nasir’s smallest customers.

It serves to illustrate that in any business, it’s the negative experiences that will stick with your reputation the longest. How well you manage your customer relationships is how you will be remembered.

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