Service with a Smile

Seth wrote an article this past week about companies that have lost their ability to deliver functional customer service. It reminded me that I needed to talk about a few companies that I have read about or been exposed to that have gone the extra mile.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to have the opportunity to meet Bo Burlingham, an author and former editor at Inc. Magazine.  He wrote a book a few years back called Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. As a result of his talk, I reread the book and found a few nuggets.  The premise of the book is that there are some companies that have remained entrepreneurial and have decided to be great companies without reaching out for the siren song of growth forever.  Bo looks at a total of 14 companies in depth and examines the decisions that the management of each company makes to be the best they can be without uncontrolled growth.

One of the companies that he profiles is CitiStorage, a records management and retention company based in Brooklyn, NY.  You can’t get much more pedestrian than this business.  They take boxes of records from companies, store them in a huge warehouse and deliver them back to the customer when requested.  Yet, even here, a savvy business owner can make a difference.  Norm Brodsky, the CEO of CitiStorage, is a crusty, exerienced and by the books manager. Yet he understands the power of customer service. The book recounts a sales interaction with a potential customer:

The prospect was to meet with Brodsky at the end of the tour.  As they were sitting in his office, Brodsky asked the man if he was considering other vendors.  “Yes, two,” he said, and mentioned the names of CitiStorage’s major competitors.

“Did you see any differences between them and us?” Brodsky asked.

“Yes, I did,” the prospect said.  “Everyone of your employees was smiling, and they all said hello. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  They really must be happy.”

“I hope so,” Brodsky said. “Thank you for noticing.”

“Because of that, in fact, I’ve decided to give you the business.” the prospect said.

This was an important exchange.  First because the prospect noticed that the people who worked at CitiStorage were happier and showed it. Second, due to this, the prospect make a business decision based on his interactions in an hour that usually took several weeks.

In the past several weeks, I have noticed a couple of other companies that have gotten the message.  First, I have been to two Chicago Cubs games and every employee from the ticket takers to the ushers have had a great attitude, smiling and conversing with the patrons.  It is a big change from previous years under the Tribune ownership.  I think that this is an intentional customer service posture that is required by the Ricketts family, new owners of the team.

Second, I had the opportunity to participate in a company tour at S&S Activewear, a company that sells apparel to companies that will further customize them for end users. They had the requisite big, sprawling warehouse with forklifts and conveyors, but they also had a difference in how things were done.  Again, it was evident in the way their employees interacted with us. Everyone from the president (who gave the tour) to the order picker was helpful and displayed a genuine excitement about the work that they were doing.  Yet you think that this is an outlier due to the company tour, my contacts who deal with this company report that every interaction with the company is treated this way.  Due to this fact alone, they have consolidated all of their apparel purchasing to S&S.

Going back to the Seth article, I flew four flights on American Airlines in the past week.  They have gotten to the point where the only time that I really have an interaction with them in person, is when I leave the jet and the pilot is standing there waiting for us to get off the plane.  Otherwise, it is use the website and the automated check-in, swipe your credit card to pay for checked baggage and yet again for an overpriced package of chips or a pillow. They have squandered any potential opportunity for delivering a positive customer service experience and thus made the choice of airlines for this consumer to be a random choice, rather than an informed choice.

Don’t let yourself fall into this trap.  Sure it is cheaper to let a web site do your customer service, but in the end you do your business a disservice if it is the only (or even primary) method of interacting with your customer.

It doesn’t matter if you are big or small. Be like CitiStorage, the Cubs and S&S. Ensure that your team provides customer service with a smile.  It will pay off in the long run.

Knowledge Ponderings

I have been away from my blog posts for way too long and I am missing the act of writing things down.  I have been busier with a lot of projects lately, but that is really no excuse. I have a few small articles that I will be publishing over the next week or so and then hopefully will get back on track with a more normal publishing schedule.

My son, Eric, is a musician.  He has played in bands for 7 years now and is a sousaphone player for the Illinois State Redbird Big Red Marching Machine. At the end of Eric’s emails, he includes the quote:

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. ~Victor Hugo

As a non-musician, it always seemed to me to be a little strange.  How can music express that which cannot be said? I enjoy music and my kids have introduced me to new stuff that I never would have heard without their help.  But, really, expressing things?

Then I saw this video showcasing Bobby McFerrin (of Don’t Worry, Be Happy fame) and how music is innate within all of us, everywhere.  To me this showed how we all have the basic music sense within us. It is astonishing how quickly the audience “gets it”.  Most of the audience members would not consider themselves musicians at any level, could not tell you what note they were singing, yet they were able to use these unknown skills to generate lovely music, under the direction of a “real” musician.

So now, of course, the question is what other types of knowledge are innate at least at the basic level? What else can we do that we don’t know that we can do?  I don’t have the answers, but I am interested in the discussion.

Thoughts on Mentorship

I have been doing some thinking about mentoring.  As I get more experience in providing business guidance to others I have found that there needs to be some more structure put around these relationships.   Perhaps it is that old thing that it seems like you find articles in the news when you were thinking about them, but I found this article today about mentoring turning into a multi-player sport.

It makes a lot of sense.  Clearly, mentors have a lot to give to their charges.  Last week at the Launch Depaul new venture competition, all three of the for-profit teams have dedicated mentors through the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center Blueprint program. But not as clearly, mentors are usually really good at a couple of business topics and relatively weaker on others. As an entrepreneur who is looking to recruit a mentor, it is a good idea to perform a serious self evaluation to understand what your true needs are and what you hope to have the mentor accomplish.  In many cases, it makes sense to work with several mentors to cover the spectrum of issues that the business owner has uncovered through the analysis.  A good mentor will know his or her strengths and where they can provide the most support, but they will also know of other potential mentors who can cover other areas and be a good fit for the corporate culture.

Currently I am working on a project with another mentor, where a portion of the need is in my wheelhouse, finance and operations.  But the other mentor that I am working with is a whiz with technology, planning, HR and legal.  The entrepreneur understands sales and marketing, so we are fairly close to covering the ongoing needs of the company to enable serious growth.

As a business owner engaging a mentor or mentorship team, it is critical that you all agree on the structure for the support.  In the cases where I was just a mentor on call when someone had an issue, the result was less satisfying for both parties than when the mentoring was clearly defined.  That is not to say that you cannot deviate from the plan, however it is incumbent on all partners to understand what needs to be done and to adhere to a process to manage plan changes.

Both parties get so much out of a mentoring relationship, when it is managed as a true business relationship.