The path to customer satisfaction Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Customers won’t necessarily come back to you just because you sell BMWs.

It’s a lesson Steve Lamfrom has learned from 35 years as the principal owner of $45 million A&L Motor Sales, a company his father founded in 1948. Your products and brand are important, but unless you develop great relationships with your customers, you’re missing the most important ingredient of success.

Lamfrom says that your customers come to you and pay for your products or services in order to be taken care of, and they need to have as much confidence in the people behind the product as they do in the product itself.

As a leader, taking care of your customers starts with taking care of your employees; once you’ve provided employees with what they need to succeed, they will be more able and willing to provide top-notch customer service.

Smart Business spoke with Lamfrom about why customer satisfaction begins with employee satisfaction and how to satisfy your employees.

Remember where customer satisfaction starts. The main thing to remember is that if you don’t have good customer satisfaction, it’s because you don’t have good employee satisfaction. It’s most important to recognize what your employees need and satisfy their needs because if you can satisfy employees’ needs, they’re going to satisfy the customers’ needs.

How do you do that? The best thing is to listen. To give you an example, we just remodeled our showroom, and we also remodeled the employees’ lounge and restroom at the same time. That’s something which stemmed from a desire to keep our employees satisfied with the work environment here.

If you don’t actively engage your employees and meet their needs, you are going to lose your customers, no question, because it’s all about relationships in business. My relationship with my employees is reflected in my employees’ relationships with our customers.

If your employees can’t or don’t want to be at work, they won’t have the ability to take care of that customer. Ideally, we want to eliminate all our turnover. We recognize how expensive it is to have turnover, to hire and train new people.

In business, it’s tough to get good people. In the auto sales industry, we probably have the highest turnover in terms of salespeople. Our average salesman has been here for just over a year, and that’s not a great number.

Find out what employees want. We ask them what they need. As long as it’s not excessive — like wanting three weeks of vacation when they’re only entitled to two weeks — we work with that. We recognize the employees need their time.

At the same time, when we’re short-handed, we’ll recognize when someone has to put in six days or 60 hours a week. In other words, you have to give 100 percent to get 100 percent.

You can’t give everything everybody wants all the time. It’s sort of like bringing up your kids. You want to give them what they want, but you can’t give them everything.

You just have to listen to what the employees want and need. If someone’s car breaks down and they can’t make it in to work, we might give them a car to use for a week.

Everything is not black and white and by the rule book because the world is changing. The whole idea of meeting the needs of employees is a give-and-take. For instance, people like their weekends off, but weekends are when a lot of people like to buy cars. So we might try to be flexible with scheduling, but someone might need to take a day off during the week so they can work a weekend day.

Make yourself accessible. To me, the idea of having an open-door policy means that an employee will feel comfortable enough to come to me, come to their supervisor, their general manager at all times. To make them comfortable, you have to be active in your communication.

We have a managers’ meeting once a week that usually takes two or three hours. We instruct all of our managers to list all of their problems during the week and bring them to the meeting. This way, we get both sides of the issues.

When somebody comes to you directly, you get half of the story. You want to know what both sides of the story are. As an example here, are we out of loaner cars, or are we just not getting the service work out? You need communication like that because everything at this dealership is a team effort. That’s the only way it can be done in business today.

Get to know your people personally.

We try to have less-formal social events during the year, whether it’s a Pirates game, a football game or a picnic or even a pizza lunch once a month. I believe it brings camaraderie.

You know who their spouses are, who their kids are, you recognize that one employee has four kids and drives 45 minutes to work or works a 10-hour day. You realize what issues your employees face, what they need to do to be at their best.

Getting down to a personal level is important because it leads to longevity with your employees; they want to stay where they are. It gives a trust to your employees; it gives an acceptance that ownership cares.

HOW TO REACH: A&L Motor Sales, (412) 373-6071 or www.almotors.com