The best business policy is customer service

By Taimi Dunn Gorman, publicist and marketing consultant with Gorman Publicity

Small courtesies can be far-reaching and long remembered.

My August vacation was a four-day road trip with my best girlfriend from college. After teaching for 20-years in rainy, Juneau, Alaska, she had decided to move to Bend, Ore., where the sun shines 300 days a year.

The town of Bend is very much like Bellingham, with fun sidewalk cafés and shops in the old sections, strip malls around town and a up-scale shopping center built on the site of an old mill on the river. Needless to say, in a couple of days, I was low on money and needed to cash a check. I don’t use credit cards and my debit card account was low, so I went in search of a real bank that might give me real money.

The first challenge was that neither of my two banks, ICU or KeyBank, has a branch in Bend. Armed with lots of ID and a positive attitude, I approached a teller in a nearly empty US Bank just down from a fabulous shoe store in downtown and asked if they might cash a check.

The young teller looked at me blankly. “No, if you don’t have an account here we can’t cash one,” she said.

It wasn’t like I looked like a bum or something, I was carrying a Coach bag and wearing some pretty nice jewelry, but I was beginning to feel about as welcome as yellow jackets at a picnic. “Where do I go if there is no KeyBank in town,” I asked.

She had no clue, and it wasn’t as though she was going to strain herself to ask a supervisor or anything, so we wandered back out onto the sunny shop-lined sidewalks to reconsider.

“Let’s try the Wells Fargo over there,” said my girlfriend.

There was a long line. I sighed and waited. A personable man in a suit came down the line with a basket of suckers and I asked if he could help. I took a sucker and told him what I needed. He wasn’t sure if it was possible, but he said they would try. I felt hopeful. At least someone was talking to me. Once at the counter, another young teller listened to my story. My girlfriend piped up that she has her mortgage there if that would help.

It was against policy to cash non-customer checks, the teller said, but she was going to cash it anyway. She said she trusted us. She answered my friend’s questions about the best places to live in town, talked about where the snow fall causes the worst traffic back-ups and the best places to visit. She gave me $300 and her business card, and said she looked forward to seeing us again. I told her I would put the money back into the local economy. She thanked me.

As we left, my girlfriend decided to move her checking and savings to Wells Fargo as soon as she got home.

Some business policies are made for very good reasons, like requiring a receipt for a return. Other policies, and sometimes I think the majority of them, are for the convenience of the business and have nothing to do with what customers need or want.

I’m remembering the clerk in a jewelry store who snottily informed me that they didn’t accept Discover Card, or a restaurant who wouldn’t take local checks, and the Bellingham store than doesn’t accept Canadian cash or coins. Some businesses crowd their walls with signs declaring what they won’t do.

“When business is slow and money is tight, it’s tempting to create more rules and policies in the hopes of increasing profit, saving money or employee time, or cutting back on niceties. Customers notice those things. As service deteriorates, they drift away and before you know it, they’re not coming back.” —Taimi Dunn Gorman

How about the place that wouldn’t accept $100 bills for fear of counterfeits? Buy a detector pen at the Office Max! People are trying to give you money and you won’t take it? How about telling someone they can’t use the restroom or you can’t make change for the newspaper machine? At least use your judgment.

It drives me crazy when stores limit the number of clothes you can have in a dressing room, so you have to take everything off twice. It’s annoying when the waiter asks how everything was, and when you tell him he just says, “oh”. Nothing happens because no one has created a customer-friendly policy of making things right when there’s a problem.

When I was in the restaurant business, the company goal at the Colophon Café was to “make customers happy”. It was a pretty simple goal, but it guided nearly everything we did, from the quality of the food to our response when there was a problem. Our priority was customer convenience, and if that conflicted with policy, we looked more carefully at the policy. It worked pretty well. The Colophon Café is still as busy as always after 24 years, even during the current recession.

There are other locally owned Bellingham businesses who have survived economic ups and downs the same way. They are the ones you think of when you need something, and recommend to friends. Their longevity is due to their focus on the details that give customers what they need, and their ability to offer the kind of service that big chain stores can’t because they are mired in their policies of what they can’t do instead of what they can do.

It’s the little things customers remember, like going further in service than they expect, doing a favor, or at least being friendly. Results can be far-reaching, like the new customer for life that Bend bank just got, or an article or blog someone writes about your service.

When business is slow and money is tight, it’s tempting to create more rules and policies in the hopes of increasing profit, saving money or employee time, or cutting back on niceties. Customers notice those things. As service deteriorates, they drift away and before you know it, they’re not coming back. If anything is to be learned, when times are bad keep your focus on what the customer needs, not on what you need.

Taimi Dunn Gorman is a publicist and marketing consultant with Gorman Publicity. She formerly owned the Colophon Café and Doggie Diner in Fairhaven and teaches marketing seminars at Whatcom Community College. She may be reached through her Web site at www.gormanpublicity.com.

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