Sunday, April 15, 2007

Customer Service Blooms

Spring must be in our collective psyche despite the persistently cool weather. For reasons inexplicable to me, I have been subject to unusually pleasant customer service. In that I am generally jaded about what I will encounter on the phone or face-to-face, these encounters came as a surprise. So low are my expectations that I barely recognized the good service I was receiving. Only when I basked in the benefits in my home environment did I realize that something special had happened.

Take the simple act of buying flowers. As my friends and family know very well, the ambience of a place either cheers me up or makes me grumpy. For example, candles in a restaurant are a must! Flowers are in the same category. The difference is they can cheer us up all day. But, I’ve been depriving myself of fresh cut flowers and small blooming plants for the house. I put myself on a flower budget over the past year because I realized that my “habit” was getting costly. I have not, therefore, frequented the flower kiosks in the grocery stores.

With the coming of Spring, I justified that my disciplined behaviour over the last several months warranted a reward---some flowers! Instead of avoiding the flower area in my local Dominion store, it became a magnet for my attention. My two visits have “exceeded my expectations”. With the benefit of my reflections on the first one, I asked a few questions of the woman who had taken care of me on both occasions.

This was her approach on my first visit. When completing the transaction, she took the opportunity to tell me how to take care of my new “Heather” plants. I did not know that cold, strong tea was the best source of water for them. I have dutifully followed her instructions with good results. I also purchased some roses; however, she mentioned nothing about them. Once home with the roses, I had some trouble with one drooping almost immediately. “No problem”, I said to myself. “That’s the norm and the price of working with fresh cut flowers.”

On my second visit, I repeated my pattern: roses and another flowering plant (lilies). This time, she met me while I was choosing the lily and provided advice on care and after care so I could re-use for next year. At the counter, she told me how to avoid drooping roses (very hot water). I would have walked away and repeated the same mistake and it certainly had not occurred to me to report my drooping problem. I had not one sad-looking rose upon following her advice. They were all still straight up even in the compost pile! The irony is that I have been advised of this “trick” in the past. I had simply forgotten it in the rush of life.

At the end of my second visit, I asked the employee how she gained her knowledge and why she was so helpful. She was essentially self-taught through books, the HGTV channel and experience over time. Her helpfulness was driven by a desire to send every single customer away with one tip. I don’t know whether management has made this a requirement (a positive attitude and an informed staff member) as I didn’t get that far in my questioning. I do know that my own attitude towards the store in general has gone up.

Some very successful organizations stress the importance of “attitude” in their recruiting strategy combined with a supportive working environment. Southwest Airlines is a prime example. I believe West Jet is the same---confirmed by a recent experience. Blockbuster tries by having a staff member say “Hello” to each entering customer. Home Depot is on the road to recovery with a new CEO who is stressing customer service for all, not just some. The previous one dropped the ball by focusing on the construction trades and making life miserable for staff (as different from the founders). Home Depot’s business suffered accordingly. Thus, the best attitudes can be spoiled in an environment that fails to enable an employee to shine and messes with customer relationships.

Yes, I know. This is old news. But, maybe, things are getting better. That is, leaders are becoming more determined to get customer service right as the hard evidence piles up. Dollar signs are not easily ignored in a world where great success can become great failure with unhappy, poorly prepared employees.

It’s not as simple as it seems. My experience evolved from the employee caring (a great attitude) and knowing something worthwhile (providing quality information). A reduction in quality of the service or the product would have compromised my satisfaction. For example, our own Issy Sharp has parlayed the Four Seasons Hotels over more than 40 years into a worldwide luxury brand. His deep regard for satisfied and well-selected and trained employees and attention to every detail of the customer experience are the prime sources of his success as a leader.

Another that comes to mind is the founder of Dyson vacuum cleaners. He has tapped into a disgruntled world wide customer base with a vacuum cleaner that really does the job. His passion for making something better and then providing the service and support to reach customers has made him a billionaire. At the same time, he’s contributing to making a “cleaner”, healthier world.

This Spring I’ve been on a roll. Better customer service at every turn as I go about my errands and business. I’m blowing my flower budget with my new found faith in service. I relented and bought a Dyson because I became more aware of how much I’ve been putting up with when I did not need to do so. The good experience of quality and customer service is stoking the fires of “ambience”, a feeling I cannot ignore.

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