Good customer service inspires loyalty to be envied by non-profit organizations

GREAT HARDWARE STORE WITH PREMIUM WORKERS

December 16, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

Let me tell you about one of my favorite stores, American Home and Hardware in Elkton. As an owner of a 200-plus-year-old house I find myself in a schizophrenic, love-hate relationship with that store. Half my income seems to get sucked out of my pocket every time I drive past the place. Yet, they seem to always have whatever weird thingamabob I need.

Better yet, are the people that work there. When I find bagworms on my shrubs, Gene will take whatever time I need to solve my problem, then escort me to the checkout, armed with the latest weaponry in the eternal fight against bugs. Bob in lumber advises me on my renovation needs. Once, lacking a specialized tool I needed to mount an old door, he went home to get the tool for me to borrow, instructed me on how to use it, and sent me on my way. Problem solved.

The same holds true for whatever department you browse in at the store. Steve in plumbing, Darnell in paints . . . all long-term, well-trained, experienced employees eager to serve you. I long ago stopped searching the big chain hardware stores for bargains. I can no longer stand the pathetic service and "expert" advice offered by an 18-year-old just hired the week before. American Home and Hardware in Elkton has spoiled me with great service and fair prices. For better or worse, we've got a relationship going.

But, it was really one special incident that clinched my loyalty. Maybe three years ago I walked into the store looking for an odd fastener. Not finding my usual department experts, Chuck Lewis or Jerry Broyles, I was approached by a young man who asked if I needed help. In seconds it was obvious to me that the youngster knew a whole lot less than I did about fasteners and gave me some bum advice.

With other stores, I might have avoided it in the future and maybe even bad-mouthed it to others. Not in this case. The next day I complained to Chuck, who immediately talked to the kid, explaining to him the importance of good customer service, how to get help from peers, and the linear relation between good service, profits and jobs. Weeks later I found all this out, when a store manager thanked me and told me that employee training was changed to accommodate my concern.

So, can the same be said about your non-profit organization? Can one client make a difference? Is your commitment to quality-control so thorough that the comments or complaints of one client will cause your organization to re-examine its systems?

Part of the problem is rooted in a smugness that too often comes from helping others. The thinking here is: "We are breaking our backs, underpaid and overworked trying to help these people. Sorry, but we're doing the best we can with limited resources and tools." Sorry again, folks, that is no longer good enough.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview Harry Hammond, owner of the Elkton American Home and Hardware store, as part of a two-county survey of businesses we were conducting for a non-profit organization. "Look," he said to me, leaning across his desk, located on the main selling floor and open to all, "everything we do here is geared for the customer. They are our sole reason for surviving. I believe if we offer top-notch service and are always fair in our dealing with our customers, they will be loyal to us. I won't tolerate anything but the best service."

Is your non-profit intolerant to anything but the best service? Do you treat each and every person you deal with as a person, and not a form or a number? Do your clients have such a strong relationship with your organization that they will not tolerate being offered anything but superior service? Does that commitment extend from the telephone receptionist to the chief executive?

Studies of customer satisfaction show the overwhelming majority never do complain. They simply never come back, come back much less frequently, and/or bad-mouth the store to others. The result? For a non-profit it can range from a bad reputation due to lousy employee attitudes, to decreasing revenues, to what I call a failure tothrive. The latter is an institutional disease caused by a lack of attending to the core reason for existence to serve the client.

After my interview with Hammond, Chuck Lewis helped me decide which drill bit would solve my latest problem. Ten minutes later Iwalked out of my hardware store with a $1.79 purchase, sure that it would meet my needs (or they would insist I bring it back) and satisfied that it was a good exchange.

K? Do your clients feel the same about the exchange every time

they walk away after receiving your services? And, if not, why don't you know about it?

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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