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    Customer service or lip service?

    When it comes to the theory of the well-worn phrase customer service, the MBAs coming out of college now days speak it often and with eloquence. I was in the restaurant business for over 30 years and had the opportunity to meet many of these fine young people in their nice suits. Our meetings usually took place in the restaurant they managed at lunch time while the place fell apart service wise. The cook was burning the food the waitress was falling behind and the tables needed clearing. The customers needed attention while they talked about customer service.

    When I was a teenager, I learned the short fat guy theory of customer service from my boss Stan.  I looked up to him and down upon him at the same time. Even though he was much shorter than me my respect for him made him seem much taller. His theory was that our customers were the owners of our business. They each deserved and received a twinkling smile and some heart felt special recognition. When the cooks were burning the food (sometimes it was me) he threatened to knock us upside the head.  The waitress never had to ask for help and he would buss the tables himself.  We stayed open till the cars quit coming and we didn’t leave till the place sparkled. The short fat guy theory was his and his wife Martha’s passion and way of life.

    When I went into business for myself in 1975, at age 21 with Happy Steak restaurant here in Tahoe and a second steak house 5 years later in Carson City, I had to learn how to evaluate whether I was doing a good  customer service job with our restaurants. I found that there are benefits to doing a customer service self-analysis that can result in greater customer loyalty, new market segments and an exposing of your competitor’s weakness, as well as possibly a release from relying on price alone as a competitive edge. The pricing issue has especially become a problem as the internet is open 24 hours a day and the competitor’s overhead is often just the extra space in their garage while brick and mortar shops, especially retail shops are stuck with buildings purchased or rented.

    I started by making sure our employees were well trained, that they knew our products and all about what goods and services we had to offer. Our customers needed to know what they could expect from us. For instance, did they know that if they caught fish that we would prepare them for them along with sautéed vegetables and pasta? In the case of retail do customers know that you deliver, that you accept credit terms or that consultations are free? They can’t buy something they don’t know you have to offer. Clear understandable web sites can make those sales happen and help you compete on line.

    It all must be convenient to do business with you. A study referred to by business consultant Kent Burnes, whose work book is a source of information in this article found that most retail goods are now purchased between 4pm and 8pm. Yet many service businesses and retail businesses stop work at 5pm. How does a working customer especially the growing segment working in government, get off work, run an errand and or pick up their children and still get to your business before you close? Only government and banks operate under nine to five hours with impunity. What time do you close? What time does your competition close?

    Amazingly some businesses still don’t take credit cards. When traveling, I simply move on to the next place that shows they want my business by accepting any form of payment.

    Some establishments are not presentable. My old boss Stan would have said, if you have time to lean you have time to clean! Stan’s wife Martha even had us use tooth brushes as part of cleaning the restrooms! I learned that customers judge everything by how much attention is given to clean facilities. In addition to cleanliness many of the larger retailers use psychology by using colors, mood lighting, mood music and even the right smells sprayed into the air to get their customers in the right buying mood. Even the positioning of their merchandise and which way they cause you to turn so that you will see all they have to offer, or certain high profit products is all well planned out. When I sold houses, I would go a few hours ahead of a showing or MLS tour and start up the fire place in winter, so the house was warm and inviting. I would turn on the lights and bake cookies in the oven. I learned from a wise mentor to help my clients move in and then bring them a homemade lasagna dinner with some bread and wine for a picnic among the boxes. There were many times that my father and I helped tourists fit their chains in the parking lot. We didn’t laugh when they had put chains on the rear wheels of front wheel drive vehicles, at least not till later. At one point we had a manager who had our employees help him clean customers car windows. He got a raise.

    Duane Wallace
    Executive Director South Tahoe Chamber of Commerce