They were just two ordinary, polite midwestern women with pencils, a checklist, and smiles on their faces. Nothing to fear, right? But wait! Pencils? Checklists? Perhaps the 485 salespeople, waiters, and bank tellers who served Cindy Lewis and Marian Brzykcy last summer should have paid more attention. But most didn't.
Lewis and Brzykcy, fortysomething sisters with otherwise normal lives as a training consultant and a management consultant, respectively, in suburban Illinois, decided to channel their own mounting dissatisfaction as customers into a full-flung survey of almost 500 retailers. At home-improvement stores, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants, the sisters shopped, spent money, and took careful notes.
And after a three-month, admittedly unscientific $5,000 spree, the duo came to this sad conclusion: Only 3% of their store visits had left them "very satisfied." The remaining 97% failed mostly on the basics: lack of courtesy and skimpy product knowledge. Lewis and Brzykcy distilled their findings into a self-published booklet titled Beyond Taking the Customer's Money (available for $5.50; firstname.lastname@example.org). Here are their essentials of customer service.
Make It A Relationship.
One great experience with a customer can create lasting loyalty and buzz. On a hunt for a cell phone, Lewis met a saleswoman she wishes she could clone. "She introduced herself, asked my name, went through the features that related to my needs, and didn't try to sell me the most expensive phone," Lewis recounts. "I can't tell you how many people I've recommended her to."
Most often, customers describe what they want, when they want it, and how much they can spend early in an interaction. Sealing the deal becomes a matter of paying attention. Unfortunately, a salesman Lewis encountered in a home-improvement store didn't bother. "Oh, shopping for hubby?" he blurted as he walked down the aisle. The power tool stayed comfortably on its shelf.
"Shouldn't," "can't," "not my department"—these words have no place in customer service. At one restaurant, Lewis and Brzykcy were stranded in a booth without silverware or a waiter. When they finally made eye contact with a waitress amid a sea of empty tables, she quickly replied, "Your waiter is late, and I can't take your order because this isn't my station." Um, check, please.
Assume All Customers Are Royalty.
Any customer can make your day—so treat every customer like they're the one. That's not how one Chicago bank operated. Dressed in casual garb, Brzykcy walked in expecting to open up an account for her aunt. After being "treated like an unwelcome guest" she decided to take her aunt's money-market accounts and investments elsewhere.
Do Your Homework.
While shopping for a TV antenna, Lewis asked the difference between various models. "They're all pretty much the same," the salesperson replied. "Some cost more because they look better." Wow, thanks for the insight. "Ask yourself," Lewis says, "is the way you treated your last customer the way you'd treat your mother? If the answer is 'I don't know,' you need a few tips."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.