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At your service Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002
From the editor: I was having lunch with Hal Becker a couple of years ago to discuss the regular column he was writing for SBN at the time. He asked for a small salad. “Our lunch salads are pretty big,” the waiter said.

“Can you just make me a small dinner salad?” Becker asked again. “You can charge whatever you want [lunch was on the editor that day], but I’m really in the mood for a small salad.”

“I’m sorry,” the waiter said. “We can’t do that.”

We placed our orders and my entrée was preceded by, you guessed it, a small salad, which Becker stared at hungrily.

He turned to me and said, “I’m writing a book on bad customer service. This restaurant just made it in.”

A year later, Becker sent me a signed copy of the book. The inscription: “Look at story on page 101; sound familiar?”

Well, now that I’ve told you the story, we’ve dispensed with page 101. But here are other excerpts from his book, “At Your Service: Calamities, Catastrophes And Other Curiosities Of Customer Service” ($17.95, Wiley and Sons). It offers examples of bad service and interviews with 10 companies that provide top-notch service.

Trouble at the electronics store

People ask me, “Which is your favorite horror story?” This definitely has to be one of the top contenders. [But] in this case, I got lucky. I actually thought of a snappy comeback. And whatever you think of me, (I am not an evil guy, really), it was fun. I could imagine the expression on this clerk’s face when her boss informed her that I was not who I said I was. And then I could imagine her boss asking her, “What is this all about?” She would have to say something about what she did and backpedal out of the situation.

Great customer service is not an accident. It takes thought, planning, and, of course, the right players to make a winning team.

Brain Dead Electronics [no, of course that’s not the real name] sells electronics and miscellaneous stuff. I went in, got the new Steely Dan Live CD and took it to the checkout counter. The clerk’s name was Tiffany, and I don’t know when I saw anyone move more slowly. And she was talking to her buddy. Tiffany and her buddy weren’t really ignoring me. But I definitely got the impression that I was more of a nuisance than a customer.

I said, “Excuse me, I’m kind of in a hurry. Will you be able to ring me up?” So now, Tiffany decided to ring my sale up very, very s-l-o-w-l-y. All the while she kept talking with her buddy. I said, “Excuse me, I’m really in a hurry. Can you cut your conversation and do it a little bit later? I don’t mind if you talk, but why don’t you do it as soon as I leave.”

I could see the cash register drawer, which was open right in front of me. I saw every quarter, dime, nickel and penny. Instead of giving me the loose ones, she decided to break open every new roll of coins so that she could go even slower.

Now, I thought, it’s time to mess back with her. So, just as she finished, I said, “Tiffany, hi. My name is Jon Lief (my friend Jon and I always use each other’s names in situations like this) and I want you to know that I am from corporate. I am from the shopper’s program, and you have been shopped, which means that your customer service was atrocious.

“I want you to go to your manager as soon as I walk out, and tell him Mr. Lief was here from corporate. Let him know that today is your last day. Because as soon as I get in my car, I am writing up a report and I’m faxing it to the home office to explain why you will not represent our corporation any longer. Tiffany, have a really good day.”

And I walked out. You should have seen the look on her face. Can you imagine her going to her boss and mentioning Mr. Lief, and her boss saying, “Who? We don’t have a corporate shopper’s program. There’s no Mr. Lief.”

I ruined her day.

What Should Be Done? The answer is very simple. This person should go work at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where employees can be as slow and as nasty as they want because they have a job for life.

A person like this should be let go. This attitude is totally inexcusable.

Managers need to get out of their offices and on the floor more often so they can observe their employees.

Actually, it goes back even farther than that, to the hiring policy. This episode is another case of management hiring the wrong person just to put a lukewarm body in a spot rather than looking for someone who has the right attitude — someone who can represent the company and create the desired image.

Two phrases that say it all

Forget the mission statement. All mission statements say the same thing, and they do absolutely nothing for the customer. If you and your company can live by these two phrases, and if you can actually implement them every single day, then you will be providing exceptional customer service.

1. Customer service is doing more than the customer expects.

2. Customer service isn’t what you think it is — it’s what the customer thinks it is.

Imagine that you own or manage a restaurant. You ask a customer, “How was everything?”

The customer says, “It was terrible.”

You say, “How about a free dessert?” Maybe the customer doesn’t want dessert, or is on a diet or is diabetic. If so, free dessert is not what the customer wants. The customer wants great service or to be compensated for poor service, either now or some time in the future.

Instead, you should simply say, “What would you like us to do for you?” Usually when the question is phrased that way the customer only wants half of what you expected to give. It’s surprising, but if you are not prepared to ask that statement, you have no business dealing with the public.

Learn from the masters

The best companies in the world have certain qualities in common. Whatever our business, we all can learn a lot from them. I have selected those that have impressed me most, based on personal experience.

Some of these are household words. But you don’t have to be big and famous to be successful, as you will see from the small companies I have included.

After I selected these 10 companies, I called each one and asked questions about their philosophy and practices in regard to customer service. A few factors really stood out.

First, in virtually every case, when these companies hire new employees, the most important attribute they look for is a positive attitude. The critical factor for every company is not a skill or an educational degree, but an aspect of underlying personality that is reflected in behavior.

I don’t know of any company that will hire a person without the appropriate attitude and then try to instill that attitude through training. Companies can only reinforce the right attitude with a positive environment. A corporation is a piece of paper, but a company is made up of people. And people with great attitudes make great companies.

The second area that really stood out — and this discovery really blew me away — was the absence of rules. Not one single company had a 100-page policy manual or book of rules. Instead, these companies have ongoing hands-on training to teach their people how to take care of the problems. Employees don’t have to worry about making mistakes as long as the customer is satisfied. And this method seems to be working quite well.

The bottom line is this: Train people well, empower them to do their jobs, and then let them go and not be afraid to make mistakes as along as they always, always put the customer first.

In putting together this section, I went right to the top in each organization and started with the CEO.

What amaz ed me was that the higher up I went, the nicer the people were. In many cases, the president referred me down to someone else — typically the public relations department or the vice president of sales, and that was fine. What really impressed me was that everyone returned my calls quickly, without knowing who I was or what I wanted, and they couldn’t have been more helpful.

It just shows that the best corporations are run with the best people. It all starts on top with being congenial, talking to people as individuals, and treating them as people.

JM Landscaping

Here’s a little company you have probably never heard of. A couple years ago, it did something that floored me. My house was one of the first built in a new development. So a lot of homes were built around me, with all the dirt that goes with construction and landscaping. I got used to dealing with it because it was inevitable.

One day I received a letter. At first I thought it was junk mail, and I was about to throw it away, but for some reason I read it. It started:

“Dear Home Owner, we would like to take this opportunity to thank you for being so patient with us since we first started our landscape development project for our all-time favorite customers, Tom and Joan Adkins. We fully understand the inconveniences we may have caused neighbors while we were involved in this project over the past several months. To show you our sincere appreciation for your tolerance, please find enclosed a little thank you for putting up with us over the past year.”

It was a gift certificate. I thought, “What do I want with a gift certificate for landscaping services?” But before I threw it away, I happened to look at it more closely. It was a $25 gift certificate to Outback Steak House.

Was this action above and beyond my expectations? You bet. If I didn’t have a landscaper, would I call JM? In a heartbeat.

So I called to thank them for the gift certificate. What they said really surprised me. I was one of the only people to thank them. Is this the kind of world we live in, where hardly anyone says thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty? The guy at JM was a very sincere guy, the kind of person who can go very far if he has the right plan and the right focus, and if he keeps his attitude going in the same direction.

Here’s my interview:

What is your philosophy regarding customer service?

My basic philosophy is that I absolutely want to treat my customers as I would want to be treated. If I start a project for a customer, I expect to stay on that job until it is completed and not be running around at 50 different jobs. It’s important that once I have quoted a customer a price, there will be no change in the price. If I run into any problems, they are my problems. I will always try to do something extra for a customer — unless that customer, of course, is a pain in the neck. Most of my clients are great people.

How do you make sure you provide great customer service?

I don’t take on a whole heck of a lot of work in a year because I want to be on every job. I feel that if I’m not on every job, then I will lose control.

Most of my 10 best companies are big companies. You are a small company, but you do have employees who work with you. Do you do any training, and if so, what do you do?

My training is basic. My new employees work with me, listen to me, and pay attention to everything. I encourage my employees to attend seminars if they are available or to read publications I have. I try to educate my employees as to the proper botanical name of plant materials.

Do you have any budget that you put aside each year for training?

No, I don’t, because this is a very small company. I never have more than five or six employees total.

Do you do anything special to motivate your employees in regard to morale, behavior, ethics, and similar things?

As for the motivational portion of it, I try not to belittle the people who work for me. I try to treat them as equals. But at the same time, I let them know that this company is not Burger King. Things have to be done my way. Also, I let my employees know that if I am going to chew them out for something, it will be a one- or two-minute ordeal, and the subject will never be brought up again. Along with this, I never attack my employees on a personal level, so they know that they shouldn’t ever take anything personally. It will be strictly job-related. It will be constructive criticism. It will be over in a minute or two, and the employee will never hear another word about it. On the other side of the coin, when employees do a better job than I expected of them, I give them a bonus in their paycheck or even that same day. I do little things to help reward them for work well done.

What do you think makes you the best in your business?

I think what makes this company the best is that I have very high values, very high morals and very high standards. I expect the same values and morals and standards of my employees. And I want to convey that to my customers.

What are the qualities that you look for in a potential employee?

I look for a good attitude. I believe in attitude. I believe that whether you pay someone $5 an hour or $50 an hour it boils down to having a good work attitude. If a person accepts constructive criticism well or if a person asks questions where they may be in doubt about something rather than trying to fake it, that all shows a good work attitude. A good work attitude also includes being on time for work as well as the willingness to work a little bit late, to spend that extra bit of time when we are not done at 5:30 p.m. If we might have to work until 7 or 7:30 in the evening, I expect my employees not to complain about it. I just had a situation that made me feel good. Last week I went to a big sports tournament in New York. My employees knew I wanted to be there and all three volunteered to work last Sunday.

Do you have policies regarding customer service?

I definitely have policies about customer service. Anything I do for a customer — and that includes material and labor — I guarantee for three years. I watch for potential problems developing in a landscape. Some plant materials will perish. When you put in 200 to 300 perennials, you are going to lose a few. I try to review a project at least two or three times a week for the first year. If I see a problem in a plant, even though it is not dead yet, I replace that plant immediately. It is my feeling that this policy serves customers in a number of ways. If customers had to replace that plant themselves, it would be an inconvenience, whereas it is easy for us to do.

In addition to “At Your Service,” Hal Becker is author of “Can I Have Five Minutes of Your Time?” and a nationally known speaker in the fields of sales and customer services. He lives in Solon.

This excerpt of “At Your Service” was reprinted with grudging verbal permission from Mike Hamilton, publisher’s representative at John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, New York. It would have been reprinted with express written permission from the publisher, except that Hamilton and the other representatives we talked to never sent the promised letter of agreement and then failed to return subsequent phone calls.

Becker’s top 10 in customer service

Callaway Golf
Disney World
JM Landscaping
L.L. Bean
McKee Foods
Mueller Tire
Ritz-Carlton Hotels
Southwest Airlines