If the Phone Rings, Answer It

What's Your Problem?

Who

Penny Handscomb, 34, vice president of human resources and training for Proflowers.com, an online florist based in San Diego that delivers flowers directly from growers to consumers. Sales are projected to hit $35 million in 2000.

What's Your Problem?

"During busy times like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, we don't want to hire a lot of people only to lay them off -- that causes morale problems. At the same time, regardless of how busy we are here, our customers have to come first, and they have to feel that we are really listening to their needs."

Tell Me About It

"If you get everybody in the company involved in customer service, not only are they 'feeling the customer' but they're also getting a feeling for what's not working. That's the key -- listening to make sure that you understand the customers and that you make them feel that you understand. When a customer calls up with a complaint, we obviously can't change the past. But we have to deal with the problem."

What's Your Solution?

"Every person I recruit into the company gets trained in customer service -- even the programmers. So when it comes to busy times, I put everybody on the phone. And what does that do to the organization? Everybody understands the customer, and that trickles down into each department in the company. Everyone starts to ask, 'How can I make this customer's life easier?' For the programmers, that might mean improving a few pieces of coding, because now they understand our customers' needs better. They didn't before, because they really didn't have that connection. It's that common experience of dealing with the customer -- no matter where you are in the organization -- that makes the difference in terms of how we work. We've got programmers, managers, VPs -- everybody -- running to the customer-service division screaming, 'Help me! Help me!' "

Zoe Barton (z-barton@northwestern.edu) is a former Fast Company intern. Contact Penny Handscomb by email (phandscomb@proflowers.com).

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