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Commit to Superior Customer Service

Excerpt from "S.A.L.T. & Pepper," co-authored by Rick Miller

We at Millennium Consulting Group began this book with several objectives: We wanted to illustrate situations where people in the retail industry performed at their best and worst; we wanted to show that companies and individuals who commit to superior personal service can and will excel, and we wanted to share an interesting story about a character named Hank—a "regular Joe" who changed his career, and, by proxy, his life, by adopting a simple-yet-powerful outlook on customer service.

The lessons behind these three objectives should inspire most people who work in retail functions, from entry-level associates to senior-level managers, to perform at their peak potential—because the opportunities are enormous. By and large, the overall quality of customer service is declining, but individuals and companies that deliver exceptional service will stand out and be rewarded at the expense of those that don't.

[Our] story is about a young retail banker who created a method called S.A.L.T. & Pepper that he applied to his customer service practices. In a short period of time, he transformed himself from a self-described slacker into one of the most successful and well-respected investment advisors in the country.

Our observations, studies, and personal experiences indicate a growing gap between those who provide great service and those who fall short of even good service. It appears the industry standard [is] to do as little as possible to get through a transaction. It appears successful human-to-human interaction is a dying skill even when people are being paid to do it.

Mom-and-pop retailers took personal pride in making their customers happy, but that spirit is gone from many of today's retail associates. Most don't get the selfless joy from helping others. But feeling good is not the only reward associated with becoming great at customer service. As S.A.L.T. & Pepper will show, a retail employee who performs well enough to stand out from the herd can uncover opportunities he never knew he had. Retail employees are standing on a mountain of opportunity, but almost none of them recognize it or know how to tap into it.

Many retail employees ask, "How can I get out of this job?" Very few ask themselves, "What can I get out of this job?" The story about Hank Davis and how he learned what he needed to do to become successful can answer that question. We think the big company that provides mom-and-pop service will win just about all of the time. This service, we believe, is what consumers want#x2026;

Hank's Story
Hey! My name is Hank Davis, from Great Plains, IL. Great Plains was—and still is—a town populated by people who earned whatever they had through hard work over long hours. My parents owned a very small business, and some of my relatives were small business owners, as well.

My parents made me go to work at a pretty young age, just like their parents did with them. I was never what you would call a great employee—and if you ask my family, they probably would tell you they wanted to fire me all along but didn't have the heart. I really did not want to be there, and it came out in the way I dealt with the customers and my co-workers. Although I probably acquired some experience working these jobs, I would not say they taught me to provide world-class customer service or advice, and they didn't build my leadership or teamwork skills.

Halfway through my freshman year [in college], my aunt suggested I apply for a position on the summer "floating staff" at the bank where she worked. My first few years with the bank were pretty lackluster because—like the jobs I had before—I did not really want to be there. [This] would change dramatically over the next few years—all because of a day I now call "Ed Pepper Day."

[Cathy, the branch manager] informed us that Ed Pepper, the CEO of the bank, would be coming to visit the branch on Wednesday, and he would be with us for the duration of the day. Cathy explained the rules, outlined some of her expectations, and made it abundantly clear we had better be "on point" when Ed Pepper came to town.

"There is no room for poor performance when Ed comes to this branch," she told us. She planted the seed that this day was going to be different than the rest. I soon would find out that Ed Pepper Day would be the most important day in my professional life…

Anyone can relate to [Hank's] basic concepts of service, advice, leadership, and teamwork, and everyone knows how they would behave if they knew the CEO of their company were making a visit to their office or store.

So why don't more people replicate this approach, and why don't more retail operations stand out for their exceptional service rather than for their bad service? Many people can't motivate themselves to put in the work and practice the S.A.L.T & Pepper philosophy, probably because they don't believe it can pay off. Many companies don't foster an environment for success or provide the training employees need to master the basics. [They] see customer service as a necessary cost of doing business but not as an opportunity to build their brand… If the organization doesn't see the value in top-tier customer service, how will employees find the spark to want to be great?

If you work as a retail associate and you think to yourself, "I'd like to be promoted to senior management or land an exciting new job," or if you just want to start enjoying what you do, you have to be willing to ask yourself some key questions:

Do I want to achieve my full potential and do I want to challenge myself to become the best I can be?

Do I want to have fun by making customers, teammates, and managers happy?

Am I willing or able to give the customer great service when he needs it?

Do I know my company's products and the customer's needs well enough to offer advice?

Can I lead my colleagues—directly or through example—when it's necessary?

Can I recognize the situations where good teamwork is in the best interest of the customer?

Do I recognize the value of building relationships with as many people as I can?

Do I realize that simple common courtesy is often the easiest way to earn respect?

The co-author of "S.A.L.T. & Pepper," Rick Miller is a consulting analyst with Millennium Consulting Group, a company that has provided research, strategic consulting, and training services to financial institutions and retail companies for more than 10 years. Miller has been a research analyst and consultant for firms such as IDC and Gartner for many years, and at one time he covered the training market. Click here to buy the book.