Banking on service Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008
Last fall, a flustered employee came into Ann H. Durr’s office at Valley Savings Bank asking for help with an aggravated customer. The president of the 31-employee regional bank had dealt with angry patrons before, so she didn’t panic when she found an agitated elderly woman demanding a certificate of deposit for more than $5,000. She simply remained calm and listened.

After taking the customer into her office and letting her vent, Durr eventually got the information she needed to assess the problem. The patron, it turns out, had actually closed the account in question during a previous visit and was ultimately very apologetic.

To quell such customer service meltdowns, Durr says you must avoid rash action and give patrons a chance to express their frustrations before suggesting solutions.

The philosophy is paying dividends at Valley Savings. The bank recently celebrated its 85th anniversary and reported total assets of $109 million.

Smart Business spoke with Durr about how to wake up from a customer service nightmare and how the 24-hour rule can prevent you from making bad decisions.

Listen to customers. I might be listening to a customer, and they are 25 percent of the way through their story, and I’m already thinking, ‘I know where we should go with this.’

The thing you need to tell yourself is, ‘Now, I’m going to be a good listener. I’m going to listen all the way through until the customer is done, and then we’re going to determine a course of action.’

Sometimes, there is a course of action, and sometimes, there’s not. A customer may be speaking to something that isn’t going to change. Just the fact that they can feel like their opinion has been heard is satisfying.

Do what you say you’re going to do. If you say, ‘Let me investigate that; I’ll call you back,’ you call them back. Or, if I have certain policies and procedures that I have implemented that I ask my employees to follow, I’m going to follow them, too.

Everybody’s watching when I’m confronted with a situation or just having a pleasant conversation with a customer — whatever that looks like. So be mindful. If you’re trying to implement good customer service as a CEO, you have to be mindful that everybody’s taking notes of how you’re conducting yourself on a daily basis.

We might have a customer who is in the lobby, and they’re difficult to deal with or they’re frustrated. Everyone’s becoming frustrated. I’m not uncomfortable to go up there myself to talk to the customer. I like doing that because it shows the employees and the customer the value I personally put on customer service.

You’ve got to walk the line. If you’re going to put certain parameters out there for your employees to follow, as a leader, if you can’t follow them yourself, it’s not a very inspiring message.

[The benefit is] your employees have a sense of pride and see your responsibility and commitment and so do the customers. What happens with the customers is the greatest of all — word-of-mouth. It’s encouragement to their friends and family to consider you for their needs.

Interact one on one. Sometimes, when people are in a group setting, they aren’t comfortable offering up their views. People think, ‘My opinion doesn’t matter,’ or, ‘I’m going to look like a wet blanket.’

They may have a very important view or a point, but they feel like the train’s already left the station so they can’t bring up a roadblock or an issue because they won’t look like a team player.

One on one, they’re more comfortable giving their vantage point from whatever particular part of the business they run. It’s sitting down with them one on one, so they feel like they can express their views.

CEOs should approach the individual or make a forum [to engage in one-on-one interaction]. It depends on the size of the business. At large businesses, they make themselves available by saying, ‘If you ever want to have 15 minutes with me, or whatever that looks like, you can make an appointment with my secretary,’ or, ‘Here’s a little suggestion box, and I welcome dialogue with you.’

At a smaller one, the CEO has to approach individuals and let them know that their opinion is valued. By working with them and building a consensus, it definitely makes the outcome successful. It helps with the ultimate group decision.

When I’ve had leaders come ask my opinion, it makes me feel like I’m valued and that my opinion matters. I could be totally off base, but because I’m not privy to some of the information that maybe that leader is, having that conversation helps me understand why decisions are made.

Give yourself time to make good decisions. We have a little thing here called the 24-hour rule. The scenario is, you’re presented with a problem, and your natural tendency is, ‘I’m going in to fix this right now.’ But if you don’t fix it properly, you’re going to make the problem worse.

So let’s give it 24 hours here. Let’s assess the situation. We’re going to respond to the situation, but we’re going to give ourselves some time to make sure that we address the problem in the appropriate fashion. Give it a 24-hour rule, and get some weigh-in from your team.

[It leads to] a better resolution. If you’re reactionary, sometimes you create three more problems. If you give it a little bit of time, you may prevent making the problem worse.

HOW TO REACH: Valley Savings Bank, (330) 923-0454 or