Volume 36, Issue 12, December 2001

Lawrence Logic

Proven Customer Service Strategies
        Examples and Advice for Starting the Year Right
by Bob Lawrence

I am a firm believer that customers buy from companies whose employees are personalities with whom they can identify and trust. I have been told that we have some of the best customer service employees in the country. This is a powerful statement, but considering the effort and performance employees deliver on behalf of our company and for the customer, I certainly won’t argue with this observation. 

For the last few years, customer sales and service direction has been the responsibility of John Screnci, Glass Wholesalers’ executive vice president of sales and marketing. While we have experienced rapid expansion over the last few years, it has been necessary for John to invest a lot of time and effort in training customer service personnel. This is something he enjoys and the transition has been fun because it has given us the opportunity to identify better who we are and what we want to accomplish. 

I think the best compliment I have for the people with whom we work is that they can be counted on when things get tough. Also, they are the kind of people anyone would want as friends and neighbors. So, how do we nurture those personalities? Over the years, John has developed a number of customer service directives that would be helpful in developing a quality workforce for any company. Most of the statements and stories are from within, and some from unidentifiable sources, but I want to share some of John’s directives with you.

TELEPHONE Customer service goes beyond the rule of returning every phone call.

The Golden Rules
Our company has one rule: use your good judgement in all situations. We also have one company principle: our customer is our paycheck. The following is our universal mission statement: Treat every customer in such a memorable way that when the transaction is complete, the customer tells someone else how great the experience was. 

When I was a project manager with Binswanger, I was working on a job requiring PPG reflective glass. This was back in the early 1980s when lead times were 26 weeks. Our order was delayed and I could not get any accurate information from PPG. Someone gave me the name of the head guy at PPG. I called and asked for this person assuming I would be transferred to someone else. I was shocked when the head guy answered his phone and asked how he could help me. After we discussed the problem I told him I was surprised that he would answer his own phone and not screen his calls. He explained to me that PPG was a company whose success depended on customers calling, and there was nothing more important to him than that next call from a customer. This is someone who definitely gets it. 

Another rule at Glass Wholesalers is to return every phone call. Once, when our plant manager Bob Larson was out to lunch, we left him a message that said to call L.C. Deekow at the Borden Company. Larson called and after some skepticism, argued with the receptionist that an L.C. Deekow did call and left word for him to return his call immediately on his return from lunch. She finally said, “Sir, think about whom you’re calling and for whom you’re asking.” It wasn’t until he finished his conversation that he noticed us rolling on the floor with laughter, but Larson did follow the customer service rule of return every phone call.

Here’s another example of great customer service. I was shopping in a mall in Dallas at a store called Papillon—Men’s Favorite Place. It was 9:15 p.m. I wanted some of the men’s ties that were on display, but was having a hard time choosing due to the excellent selection. I realized that time was fleeting so I asked the manager, “how late are you open?” “We are open as long as you are here, sir,” he replied.

Empowerment and Rewards
At Glass Wholesalers we empower employees to make decisions. Our company is not a used car dealership where the salesperson has to “ask the manager” before he can make a decision. 

Almost everyone is familiar with Nordstrom’s no-questions-asked customer service policy. For example, a customer shopping in Nordstrom’s department store gave the sales clerk several shirts he wanted to return. The sales clerk pointed out to the customer that these shirts were actually from a competitor’s store, but not to worry; he would accept the shirts and give the customer credit for them. He did this immediately without having to ask the manager. That decisive action made Nordstrom’s a new customer for life.
Why not drop an occasional reward on loyal customers? While Screnci was checking in once at an airport ticket counter, the American Airlines ticket agent scanned his ticket, pecked several letters into her computer, pulled his old boarding pass off and stapled a new ticket, upgrading him to first class. After realizing what she had done, Screnci thanked her and told her how much he appreciated her kindness. She smiled warmly and said, “Well, Mr. Screnci, without loyal customers like you, I wouldn’t have a job.” 

Here’s another example of employees who understand the importance of great customer service. When the Macaroni Grill opened just outside San Antonio, the restaurant was doing very well on the weekends, but business during the week was terrible. The owner walked into the restaurant on a Tuesday night, saw about 12 customers and told everyone their meals were free in appreciation of their patronizing the restaurant. The owner did this about six more times during that year. The business during the week exploded and you can assume he’s not had to give away a free meal in years.

The Golden Question
The golden question you should be asking yourself is what is the un-met want? Years ago, a legal secretary* was tired of having to correct her typing constantly with tape or having to start over. At home she invented a liquid she could spread over incorrect spelling and then type over it. At first she sold it to her friends and soon she started marketing the product as liquid paper. In five years she sold the company for $45 million dollars. She found the un-met want. Try to discover your customer’s un-met want.

Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot just by watching.” What the customer thinks is everything: the difference between what the customer expects in service, quality and value, and what the customer gets, becomes his perception of your company. What the customer observes is attentiveness, energy, efficiency, experience and attitude. Every one of our employees is responsible for being sure the customer is satisfied with his experience here. 

The hardest concept to get across to customer sales personnel is: don’t worry about what is best for the company, worry about what is best for the customer. I tell everyone to be the hero to the customer. If there is a problem that can’t be remedied easily, let management be the bad guy if necessary.

The Platinum Questions
The following are the platinum questions that every customer service employee should be asking customers: How are we doing? How can we get better? 

This is my favorite answer to our most common complaint: your price is high. “I don’t think there’s any question about the price being high,” I say. “But when you add the benefits of quality, subtract the disappointments of cheapness and questionable service, multiply the pleasure of your customer’s satisfaction and divide the cost over a period of time, the arithmetic comes way out in your favor.”
A customer who complains is our best friend. The customer who complains wants to buy from us. He is asking us to fix whatever problem he has. This is a golden opportunity for us to shine and make a loyal customer for life. Don’t pass the blame, rather fix the problem! Positive attitudes show, and so do negative ones. You know which attitude should be nurtured.

Remember that people don’t buy goods; they buy solutions to problems. A customer who comes to us and needs ¼-inch drill bits isn’t buying ¼-inch drill bits, he is buying ¼-inch holes. We do not sell window glass, we are selling shelter from the rain. 

Don’t be Cheap
It would be easy to conclude that we empower employees to make decisions. This is mostly true, but there is one area that is out of bounds—pricing. To have quality employees means we must have quality benefits to ensure they are a contented group of people. They must feel secure in that we offer good health insurance for their families, a 401K plan, etc. Any quality company will have those standards in place if they expect to have excellent employees for the long term. However, it must also be understood that quality products and excellent service cannot be coupled with cheap price—that is a quick formula for failure. So, a tremendous amount of effort is given to selling the benefits of what quality and service can mean for our customers, and a cheap price never plays a role in our communications. 

Training and encouragement to make decisions are a couple of reasons employees become confident at their job while earning the customer’s trust. The training invested in customer service employees is just that: the most important investment a company can make. Happy New Year. See you on down the fairway! 

*This legal secretary also had a very famous son. Anyone know who he was? 
E-mail your answers to deb@glass.com.

BLawrence Bob Lawrence is president of Glass Wholesalers Inc. in Houston. His column appears quarterly. Contact him at bobl@gwiweb.com.


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