When I was growing up in a small town in the coal region of Pennsylvania in the late 50s through the mid-70s I was exposed to great customer service because everyone knew each other in my small town and customer service was how you differentiated your business from others. I remember going to the local hardware store with wood floors and bins full of nuts, bolts, nails, and other hardware items and being able to buy one nut or one bolt and the owner of the store would put it in a little brown bag and tell you that you didn’t owe him anything. If you bought something that you didn’t know how to install the owner of the store would walk you through the installation process and maybe even draw a diagram for you. Now if you go to Home Depot and you need just one nut or one bolt you have to buy a package of 50 or more and then, if you’re like me, you use the self-service checkout lane. You don’t even interact with a human being. And, in most cases, if you need quality advice on how to use the product you’re buying, you’re out of luck. Most of the big box stores are staffed largely with part-time people who don’t know much at all about the products they’re supposed to be selling.
How did this drastic change in customer service come about? There are a lot of theories and mine is that as the United States grew and became more transient, people started doing most of their business with people they didn’t know and price became the big differentiator. In our company we have continued to use customer service as our main differentiator. On our website we state, “The answer is yes, now what was the question?” We also have an on-time delivery guarantee. If you ask for a delivery time and we are more than one hour late we give you a credit of 10% of that purchase amount off of your next purchase. As some of our sales are over $20,000 a 10% credit is a hefty penalty for being late. We also state on our website that we will make deliveries 24/7, even on holidays. Some of our concrete contractor customers have to pour concrete over a weekend because of rain being forecasted for the coming week and they have a contract that requires the job he finished by a certain date. When these kinds of situations arise we are more than happy to deliver at night or on a weekend as this differentiates us from our competition as I don’t know of any of our competitors that are willing to do this.
We certainly aren’t the best at customer service but I think were better than most. Here are some other examples of great customer service I have experienced:
- Maui Jim sunglasses. I am outdoors a lot and my eyes are sensitive to light. Over the years, I have found that Maui Jim sunglasses work best for me. Yes, they are expensive, but they have tremendous customer service, if needed. For example, the bridge on the nose of a pair of two-year-old sunglasses broke recently. They come with a lifetime guarantee so I went to their website and found that all I had to do was send the sunglasses in and pay a $10 fee for postage and handling. I got the sunglasses back in about 10 days and found that they had replaced one of the lenses at no charge. Their website said that it was $35 to replace a lens, and I had a small scratch on one of the lenses, but was too frugal to pay $35 for a lens replacement. Imagine how pleased I was when I got my glasses back, fully repaired, and with a note stating that they noticed one of the lenses was scratched and replaced it at no charge. Guess where I will always buy my sunglasses from now on?
- Chophouse 47. There is a steakhouse in my hometown called Chophouse 47. It is expensive but they have top-notch food coupled with world-class service. Here are two examples. One night my wife and I and another couple were driving to dinner when a massive thunderstorm broke out. I dropped my wife and the other couple off under the canopy outside of the front door. I parked my car and steeled myself for the run through the torrential downpour back to the restaurant entrance. Imagine how pleased I was when, as I was about to get out of the car, I saw our favorite waiter standing there with an umbrella and another one for me. Another example happened one night when my wife was not happy with an entrée she had never tried before. There was nothing wrong with it, she just didn’t enjoy it. When we got our check my wife’s entrée had been deleted. I pointed this out to our waiter and he said that as he noticed that my wife didn’t enjoy it, he took it off of our bill. Guess where we go for every special occasion and where we tell our friends to go?
- The Peppermill. Recently a restaurant in our town called The Peppermill closed down after being sold to new owners. The original owners practiced tremendous customer service. For example, one night my mother was visiting from Pennsylvania and took ill after we ate our appetizers but before our entrées were served. I motioned for our waiter and told him to bring me a check as we needed to leave because my mother wasn’t feeling well. I told him that even though we hadn’t been served our entrées I expected to pay for them because we ordered them and they were probably almost done. A few minutes later the owner came over to our table and told me that our drinks, appetizers, and the entrées were on the house. He handed me a bag with all of our entrées boxed up. He said he was terribly sorry that my mother had taken ill and he didn’t want to add insult to injury by having us pay for our dinner. We went back many times after that until the original owner sold out and the new owners destroyed the business by cheapening the quality of the food and lowering prices. The new owners thought that lower prices would bring in more customers but all it did was run off the customers who gladly paid for high-quality food and service in the past.
The book, Customers for Life urges business owners to look at the lifetime value of a customer, not just the value of one transaction. Businesses that take that view and look for ways to delight their customers with great customer service don’t have to be as competitive on price and also create legions of loyal customers who tell their friends about your business. Even though we’re in tough economic times, don’t nickel and dime your customers and look for ways to provide customer service that doesn’t just meet, but exceeds your customers’ expectations. If you do this you will be around long after those who sell on price only are gone.
How does your company provide great customer service? I know that my readers and I would love to know.
© Copyright 2012 by Jim Sobeck. All rights reserved. This information may be reproduced as long as full credit is given to the author.