Anyone who has read my columns over the years knows that I love quality customer service. All of us have seen really first-rate service, and when you experience how wonderful it is you also marvel at how simple it is. It really doesn't take a genius to figure out what makes for good service, but too often we are moving so fast we don't always take note of it.
Here's how simple it is: Any company, large or small, is in the business of serving customers. Without customers, any business, no matter how sophisticated or unusual its product, will fail. So if you don't serve your customers, you lose them. Now that shouldn't be too difficult to figure out. So why is it you run into bad service almost everywhere you turn, from the local gas station to the airlines and, yes, the healthcare delivery system?
We have become a nation that is so grateful for even a modicum of service at almost any business establishment that someone who offers good customer service can enter almost any market and be successful right off the bat. It's also why some businesses stick around in difficult markets when their competitors all fall away.
I recently read a delightful book on this topic by Leonard Berry, a professor of marketing and founder of the Center of Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University. The 1999 book, Discovering the Soul of Service: The Nine Drivers of Sustainable Business Success, was a page-turner for me. It is a well-researched, enlightened and focused look at customer service from a different perspective. Berry had written me a few weeks before about his faculty-development leave at Mayo Clinic, and I had quoted him in a column I wrote talking about the healthcare industry's need to refocus its mission and vision (July 15, p. 23).
Berry's work is filled with common sense information about how 14 very different companies were able to sustain customer acceptance and financial success. Although the firms are quite different in field, size and structure, they are quite similar in their unending quest for constantly improving the way they take care of their customers.
Berry did his homework in choosing companies that met his criteria for offering sustainable success. He makes it clear that the purpose of his book is to identify, describe and illustrate "the underlying drivers of sustainable success in service businesses." Berry visited each company he chose and interviewed senior and middle management. He also followed up with numerous phone calls. On top of this he personally experienced service delivery at the sample firms, collected a small mountain of material from them and conducted secondary research on service management. In other words, he did his due diligence on these companies.
The companies he chose are for the most part little known nationally but they should be. One of the firms is Bergstrom Hotels, a group of three hotels in northeastern Wisconsin. According to Berry, the hotels have built a strong relationship with employees, customers and their communities through attention to detail, caring and a big corporate heart. The company was awarded the 1996 Wisconsin Service Business of the Year Award.
Another one is Midwest Express Airlines, which traces its roots to 1984, when it was part of Kimberly-Clark Corp. Now an independent public company, Midwest Express takes great pride in offering "the best care in the air." In Zagat's 1997 survey of 60 of the world's largest airlines for comfort, service, timeliness and food, Midwest Express ranked first in the U.S. and was the only U.S. airline to place in the world's top 10. Other companies studied by Berry included the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co., Dial-A-Mattress and Ukrop's Super Markets.
What the success of all these companies comes down to is picking the right people, training them in the culture of the company, treating customers and employees with respect and listening to their concerns, and paying attention to detail. It's all basic stuff, and all of the companies Berry tracks practice what they preach day in and day out. They don't skip anything. They make sure things are done right the first time and they make sure that all employees know their roles. The important thing that comes through, however, is that from the very beginning the companies that Berry highlights take the time to not only compete for the right employees, but don't rush into hiring people without first making sure the people coming aboard fit the culture. Too many times many companies hire people without taking the proper time to get to know how those potential employees feel about work and interacting with colleagues and customers. Haste, as they say, can mean waste and disaster.
Berry also believes that effective leaders can articulate their dreams and motivate others with their vision. He states, "Values-driven leaders continually convey by their words and actions the meaning of success. They not only make palpable the dream (where are we going, why are we going there), they define the indicators of progress (how we know we are getting there). A key factor in sustaining success is combining a compelling dream that inspires commitment with a success definition that is reinforcing rather than contradicting."
In short, what Berry is suggesting is that truly successful leaders lead by example; they don't mind getting their hands dirty doing the things that are necessary to help their colleagues deliver quality service. They don't hide in the executive offices shielding themselves from the day-to-day operations of their companies. A company's culture, its dedication to customer service, employees and colleagues, comes from the very top. Most great business success stories happen because those who lead truly believe in the mission and do everything they can to make it work.