Americans have never had greater access to business products and services, which are now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At the same time consumers have never felt worse about the customer service they get - or don't get - from American businesses.
Perhaps more than at any time in modern history, Americans are hungry for world-class service. For astute business leaders this concept represents a huge opportunity to reel in customers and grow market share. Those who are oblivious or ignore this trend may be destined for mediocrity and even failure.
That in a nutshell is why the leadership of the South County Chamber of Commerce is hosting a daylong workshop entitled, 'World-Class Service Skills' Wednesday, April 16 at the Best Western Oak Meadows Inn in St. Helens.
The chamber is bringing in Rick Olson, a professional business coach and speaker from Dallas, Wis., to lead the workshop. Olson, who has led hundreds of sessions for small-business groups up to Fortune 500 companies, was in Columbia County a few months ago for customer service training at St. Helens Community Federal Credit Union (SHCFCU).
'One of the things we're trying to do is provide benefits to our community that typically the small-business owner wouldn't be able to afford,' said Bart Miller, chamber vice chairman and SHCFCU business development officer. 'We're in an era where the strong are going to survive, and without tools like great customer service it's going to be a struggle.'
Cost of the training, which begins at 9 a.m. and includes a catered lunch, is $20 a person for members of the chamber and $40 for nonmembers.
Olson said in a telephone interview last week the conference is designed for business people at every level, from those on the frontlines up to and including top management. The focus is on customer service, because that more than any other factor determines whether a company will be successful.
'When I ask how many people have left a business because of poor attitude, indifference or apathy, almost every hand in the room shoots up,' said Olson, citing a national study that showed 68 percent of customers who take their business elsewhere did so because of indifference or apathy on the part of its employees. 'If we don't give world-class service, people will go someplace else.'
The first step to providing world-class customer service, he said, is for the company to define what great customer service looks like, then communicate that vision to every employee.
That usually involves providing employees with better training.
'Training is expensive,' Olson said, 'but is better than the alternative. Not training is really expensive, even lethal for an organization.'
The business coach draws upon the experiences of known leaders in customer service, including the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, Nordstrom, LL Bean and Disney. Each company has a different approach. Ritz-Carlton has one of the most intensive customer service training programs in the country. Its frontline employees typically receive 240 hours of formal training each year, and managers receive more than 300 hours.
'It is a major commitment for them to do that, and yet it is paying off handsomely,' said Olson, who noted that Ritz-Carlton has many of the top-rated hotels in the world.
Nordstrom is equally renowned for its customer service and takes a slightly different approach. Nordstrom teaches its employees good customer service skills through a robust mentoring program. Nordstrom also focuses heavily in recruiting people with great attitudes and has a mantra that says, 'Hire the smile, train the skill.'
'If you give great service and people are talking about you, then you're in great shape,' Olson said.
Olson, 54, has been leading business seminars for the past 16 years and has spoken to more than a million people worldwide. He is the author of the book, 'Unleash Your Greatness, Become a Person of Impact' and has produced a CD with tips for busy managers. Olson has a bachelor's degree in ministry from North Central University in Minneapolis and spent 15 years in youth ministries before becoming a business coach.