Customer Service, Often Overlooked, Can Ring Up Sales

As American shoppers tighten their belts and storefronts increasingly compete with Web sites for attention, treating customers like kings and queens could mean the difference between holding an anniversary or a going-out-of-business sale. By Michael Peltier


Customer Service, Often Overlooked, Can Ring Up SalesBy Michael Peltier

Once upon a time, shopkeepers wrapped packages for free, corner drug stores delivered medicine right to your door, and the local dress-shop owner would return from a buying trip with outfits she knew you’d love.

To most shoppers in the 21st century, this must truly seem like a fairytale. In a world of megastores, “rock bottom” prices and outsourcing, the idea of customer service may seem part of a bygone era, a museum piece that collects dust but serves no modern purpose.

But owners, managers and experts agree that customer service may be the most unsung yet critical aspect of any business, as important as accounting systems, advertising budgets or quality control.

From a simple greeting to routine training sessions with staff to ensure that everyone is on the same page, managers say focusing on the little things, expecting high standards and leading by example can keep satisfied customers coming back and salve the wounds when things don’t quite go as planned.

And as American shoppers tighten their belts and storefronts increasingly compete with Web sites for attention, treating customers like kings and queens could mean the difference between holding an anniversary or a going-out-of-business sale.

“With the slowdown in the U.S. economy, companies may need to focus on keeping customers,” said John Tschohl, author and president of Quality Service Institute, a Minneapolis-based firm whose clients include Dun & Bradstreet and the Florida Bankers Association. “(Quality service) is 10 times cheaper than advertising and 10 times more effective. I am talking awesome service, not just OK service.”


A Dismal State of Affairs

Sadly, many businesses have yet to heed the call. Walk into a typical department store and try to find a sales associate, let alone one who knows the merchandise. As merchants try to compete in an increasingly global economy, some cost-saving moves have come at the expense of good, old-fashioned TLC.

“Voice-mail is a good example,” Tschohl said. “They should just tell their customers ‘goodbye.’ Most have ‘Push 1 for Spanish, push 2 for English and push 3 for “Go to hell.”’”

Sadder still is that customers have grown to expect being treated poorly or not at all, said Juliane Norden, owner of the Functionality furniture store in Tallahassee and a former department store executive. Savvy business owners can capitalize on that unfamiliarity. Providing such service can quickly translate into a loyal, repeat customer.

“You really have to educate people about what good customers service is,” Norden said. “A lot of people have never experienced it before. When they do, it’s a revelation.”

Tschohl points to companies such as Commerce Bank, a Philadelphia-based firm established in 1973. Customers calling in to a toll-free number get a live, helpful voice 24 hours a day, seven days as week. Closer to home, Norden said Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets routinely lives up to its motto: “Where Shopping is a Pleasure.”


 It’s Not Rocket Science

Most customer service comes down to “KISS” – short for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Just a friendly smile or “Can I help you?” can move mountains, most observers agree. It can come down to the simplest of things.

“When a patient walks through the door, they need to be greeted with a smile,” said Shawn Leatherman, a chiropractor and partner in Suncoast Healthcare Professionals in Fort Walton Beach. “My staff members need to know their names. If they’re on the phone, they will at least give them a smile.”

“You have to make sure that everyone you talk to thinks they are your No. 1 priority,” said Kathy Houchins, general manager of The Breakers On Beautiful Okaloosa Island, a 180-unit condominium. “It works.”


Know Your Customers

Mike Fraser, owner of Tallahassee Camera and Imaging, said knowledgeable salespeople have become a must for retailers like him. Unable to match prices with the national chains, Fraser focuses on customers who are willing to spend a little extra to have someone who knows what they’re talking about.

“I cannot deal with those customers who want the absolute best price in the world,” Fraser said. “I have to go after the customers who want service.”

Older customers in particular respond to attentive service compared to their younger counterparts, who are more comfortable surfing the Web than dealing with a salesperson.

“Younger people are used to doing everything themselves,” Fraser said. “Older folks are used to going to the hardware store and buying one screw. They understand customer service better.”

Chris Sehman, owner of Helen Back, a restaurant/bar in Fort Walton Beach, said knowing your clientele is critical to staying afloat, especially in his business.

“Let’s face it, a Budweiser is a Budweiser,” Sehman said. “I’ve got to distinguish myself from everybody else who provides the same product.”

Sehman makes it a point, for example, to sit down with staff before the NFL season kicks off. By pleasing a customer prior to preseason, you may not only have one loyal customer for the entire 16-game schedule but a group of friends as well. Such loyalty can provide huge dividends during the typically slower winter months along Florida’s northern Gulf coast.


Train ’Em, Keep ’Em, Empower ’Em

One of the biggest hurdles to good customer service is hiring, training and retaining good employees. Typically, employers have a month or two to determine if a new hire is going to fit. If they don’t, you need to cut them loose. Customers may be your best source for potential employees. After all, they like what you’re selling.

houchins.jpgHouchins, of The Breakers On Beautiful Okaloosa Island, meets with her respective staff members every six to eight weeks to make sure everyone is on the same page. With so much training, she said she is able to keep her expectations high. Her employees, she said, usually deliver.

Once properly trained, associates who feel they have the authority to make decisions will be more productive. The trick to maintaining an atmosphere of empowerment is for employees to feel they can make decisions to satisfy customers without fear of being fired or reprimanded.

“Employees must have the authority to make a decision on the spot to bend or break the rules in order to serve the customer,” Tschohl, of Quality Service Institute, said.

“Most companies spend a fortune on marketing and advertising in order to get customers in the door when they would be much better off if they gave their employees the authority to make decisions that will enhance their brand, image and customer loyalty,” he advised.


When Things Go Wrong

Let’s face it, sometimes things don’t go as planned. When they don’t, it’s critical to act quickly and honestly and to learn from the miscue.

That’s because for every person who complains, 26 other unsatisfied customers walk away without saying a thing, according to a 1986 study by the Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute, a Washington market-research concern.

“The foundation of it is that we have to be able to admit mistakes,” Tschohl said. “If you are able to do that, you will mark yourself as an uncommon person.”

To minimize such events, Norden said she tries to be honest with herself as well as her customers. Nobody in business likes to say no, but sometimes it’s more important to know what you can’t do. Such honesty, in the long run, can pay dividends.

While firms make millions annually consulting other companies on how best to service customers, business owners and consultants generally chant the same mantra: “Remember: The customer is always right.”