Lift off Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Phil Graffy has a hard time giving his people a hard time.

Graffy, the owner, president and CEO of Interstate Lift Trucks Inc., is constantly looking for ways to improve customer service, but the fact of the matter is that his roughly 100 employees get it.

The new and used dealer of Toyota forklifts has been honored again and again with Toyota’s prestigious President’s Award, given to its top dealers. With his people polishing that brass, it can be hard to criticize.

“They’ll say, ‘We just won the award as the best and you’re not happy now?’” Graffy says. “I get a lot of that, so I’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll celebrate for the next 24 hours.’”

When that celebrating is over, however, it’s back to focusing on things like money-back guarantees for the rare unhappy customer and creating systems to maximize efficiency for buyers.

Smart Business spoke with Graffy about how you can create simple systems to ensure customer satisfaction and why a good starting point is never saying no.

Say no to no. We’re a can-do company. The reality is I started out in sales, so I’m very customer-driven. As far as I’m concerned, the word no is nonexistent, and it’s up to me to show them a better way through technology and through training.

We’re fairly large now, but we treat every customer like they’re the only customers we have. And just by the fact that we never learn how to say no, it always comes back and we’ll have brainstorming groups and things like that based on customers. And a lot of times we’ll make better practices based on new ways we’ve served the customers.

We have a series of values we tried to create. For everything with the customer, it’s a can-do attitude — that supports the yes theory all the time.

Actually, we get excited about customer challenges. … I had a customer call up one time, it’s Friday and it’s 1 in the afternoon, he just got a contract, and he said he just picked up a new customer and called us up and said he needed 12 forklifts, and we just said, ‘OK.’ They wanted 12 brand-new lift trucks with special attachments, so we went out in the marketplace and, through our rental place and wholesalers, and any way that we could, begged, borrowed and dealed, and we found the attachments. Even though it was a Band-Aid approach, we got the customer up and running and then got the complete order together in the next few weeks. What we learned from that is there’s just nothing we can’t do, so we’ll say yes and work from there.

Create systems that make an impact with customers. I’m an expense item. Bottom line: When you buy a forklift, it’s going to cost you money, and it’s a necessary evil for them, so to speak. So what we try to do is create the best efficiencies that we can … show customers how they can save money year in and year out, and at any point in time, they can call and find out what the cost per hour is — which is almost like a cost per mile to put it into the car industry terms everybody knows.

We’ve created an accrual account, and it’s there to support customers. Let’s say a guy takes a chance on getting a forklift, and for some reason, two or three of them break down. … What we’ll do is say, ‘Listen, if you need a part or service to take care of your truck, we guarantee same-day service or same-day part. If we can’t get you up and running, because our mission is never, never have a customer have downtime … we’ll send you a free loaner. So you’re never, ever going to be down because of me. So it’s very easy to get people to switch from competitors because there is no risk. That’s big from a sales standpoint because that’s the biggest thing that holds people back. They say, ‘I don’t want to make a decision and get in trouble because you’re saying the right stuff, but everybody is.’ We back it up by making sure a customer is never down.

And there’s money just sitting in there to take care of the rental department when they take it out. And the beauty for me is, for maybe a few hundred bucks it costs me to get a truck out to the customer, I’ve taken care of a guy that probably would have told 10 people that we screwed up, and he probably would have gotten in trouble with his company and etc., etc.

Hire, train and then listen for new solutions. You have to be a good listener, you have to be a good implementer and then you have to get out of the way. Manage and get out of the way. It’s really training and trust and delegation.

That all comes down to trust, and in the beginning, we teach our processes and teach what we do. I want people to understand what we do and then really, once they get involved in it and understand it and understand their job, I make sure that rather than micromanage the job itself, I follow them around and make sure the delegation happens and the action steps happen. Once you get trust going, and you know that person can add a lot of value, then you start listening to feedback. Everybody wants to be an impact player. For example, (our CFO) is an impact guy, but he had to learn our system. Once he learned it, from there he comes back and teaches us to do it even better.

We won’t bring people on who aren’t customer-driven. We talk and talk and talk to them, and if they’re not customer-driven, and we get any negative feedback on the road or don’t like their attitude in house, we can’t have that. I’ll tell you what, it’s probably one in every three just doesn’t do it in the interview process; you can say, ‘That guy just doesn’t have it.’ And if they haven’t experienced it, they’ll probably have a hard time doing it.

How to reach: Interstate Lift Trucks Inc., (216) 328-0970 or