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.