The art of service Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Georgette Ciukurescu never practiced the martial arts. But she managed to spot a gaping need for nunchakus, throwing stars and all-things Bruce Lee.

While helping a friend outfit his martial arts club 40 years ago, Ciukurescu noticed the lack of outlets carrying inventory. The frustration enticed her to feed the market need, starting by making nunchakus by hand at her kitchen table.

Product by product, Ciukurescu has grown Asian World of Martial Arts Inc. into an international manufacturer, supplier and distributor of martial arts and sports equipment.

But understanding consumer needs only gets you so far, Ciukurescu says. You also need to develop loyalty with customers by building strong relationships and providing good service.

“I want to embrace the customer,” she says. “I want them to say this company cares. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Ciukurescu, owner, founder, president and CEO of AWMA, passes that philosophy on to her team, which ranges from 35 to 50 employees depending on the season.

Smart Business spoke with Ciukurescu about how to provide customer service.

Build relationships. You have to communicate constantly with the individual (customer). If you can be with them one-on-one on the telephone, that’s even better.

You have to let them know that you’re just an average person just like they are, and sort of relate to them with all their ordinary day issues.

You have to get a feel for who your customer is and what they like and just stay with that individual connection. It’s very important in a business relationship as it is with even a personal relationship. I kind of relate the two.

I see with one of my employees, he sends out e-mails to his customers. He talks to them about the sports teams and what they’re doing. He talks to them about movies that he likes and has anyone seen a good movie. He gets dozens of responses from the customers just interacting about movies.

These are people that buy from us, but they love this guy. They love what he brings to the table besides business.

It’s not just all statistics. We’re your family, and that’s what we try to express with our customers. That’s what they get from us and from our employees, which makes us a little bit different than the other person and hopefully brings the loyalty base in with our customers.

Understand your customers’ needs. We’re constantly asking them how they feel about our product. Are there any problems with anything? What would they like to see differently? Is there a product that they would like to see us carry?

You try to find out is there something new they would like to see in the market. We want to make a good product, and we don’t want any complaints about it.

Everything is valuable information. You can’t ignore it. You just cannot ignore it.

You can’t always think you have the right answers, too. You do have to listen to what your customers are saying, and you do have to listen to your sales team because they’re dealing with the people on a day-to-day basis.

If you want to grow and be successful, you have to pay attention.

Receive regular sales team feedback. We have meetings every week, and we break up into groups of eight people because we want to make sure we have enough time to talk with everybody.

We’ll do an overview as to what are your three major complaints in our process: Is it shipping, is it returns, is it defective merchandise, is it the person is not getting their order on time? What are you hearing?

Then, of course we like to hear the positive stuff. What are the positive comments that you’re getting? Then, what ideas do you have?

If we have new products, we’ll bring the product in for people to understand how it’s made and what it does and the benefit of it.

Then, you want to also get a feel of what’s going on with everybody in the room, too. This person hasn’t been that talkative, what’s going on, are they upset with something? You need that to find out what’s going on with your team. You need to stay connected with them.

(It’s) feedback and also keeping your business on the right track and successful. You want to make sure your employees understand what you’re thinking and what’s important for you and the whole program of what your company is all about.

You want to make sure employees are on the same track as you. We have employees who have been with us for over 20 years. Things are a lot different now than they were 20 years ago.

Build trust through service. You always try to be ... honest and fair. You put a good product out there. You deliver what you promise. And if there’s a problem, you take care of it.

If one person is upset with you, they’re going to tell several of their friends. If they’re happy with you, they’re going to tell their friends they’re happy with you.

I tell my employees the customer is always right. Whatever is the problem, fix it. Even if you know maybe what that customer is saying or doing is not correct or you know they’re at fault. Make them happy. Take care of that situation.

You get some customers that can be trying, for lack of a better word. And it affects your employees, it has to. You have to constantly have meetings with your employees; you have to explain to them how you just have to deal with this individual. ‘Let’s try and make this telephone conversation, an e-mail conversation, a positive one.’

You want that good vibe going out into the universe, but you have to show it, and you have to demonstrate it and it all comes down to your sales team. It’s just everything that goes on internally that brings that about.

That’s why you have to make sure that your people are on the same page as you are and that they are supportive of what you’re doing.

How to reach: Asian World of Martial Arts Inc., (800) 345-2962 or www.awma.com