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The lost art of customer service

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I'll probably be one of those people who raise their hand when Rick Olson, keynote speaker at the upcoming South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce workshop, asks who has taken their business from one company to another one because of poor customer service or apathy on the part of its employees.

If the national statistics hold true, approximately 70 of the 100 people who are expected to attend the workshop April 16 in the conference room at Best Western Oak Meadows Inn will raise their hands, too.

That is a stinging indictment about the state of customer service in this country.

Olson likes to accentuate the positive in his presentations by focusing on those companies who provide what he calls 'world class' customer service. He includes in that distinguished group companies like Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom and Disney. I'm sure my wife would agree that Nordstrom is a world-class company in large part because its employees provide over-the-top customers service at all times.

In my world, Les Schwab Tire Company is the standard to aspire to. Their 'sudden service team' concept is real. I've personally seen it dozens of times over the years - they literally run out the door to greet me when I drive up, as if I'm the most important person in the whole world. At least that's how they make me feel, which is why I've bought all my tires from Les Schwab for more than 20 years. I'm sure when I go into a Les Schwab store I'm going to get a great product and great service. I know they're going to take care of me, and they're going to do it with a smile on their face. That's the Les Schwab way, the Les Schwab brand, and its practice. It's been that way for years.

I had the privilege of meeting Les Schwab one time. It was a great privilege and a memorable experience. He explained to me what he felt was the main reason for his success: 'I give my employees 49 percent of the profits… I don't know why more businesses don't understand that.' That was almost 20 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.

Les Schwab was successful by almost any measure. Sure, he had a lot of money, too, but he wasn't greedy. Maybe he was successful, in part, for precisely that reason. He shared his profits with the people who helped him build the company. He took care of his employees, who in turn took care of his customers, who in turn took care of him. It is a great formula. Les Schwab Tires now has over 400 stores and 7,000 employees.

Another local company that is doing it right is NW Natural, the Portland-based gas company headed by Mark Dodson, who hosted a meeting in St. Helens last week with community leaders. NW Natural is the top-rated customer service utility in the West, and number two in the nation, according to a survey conducted last year by JD Power and Associates.

NW Natural has accumulated some impressive financial numbers, which seems to be a common theme among companies that provide great service. Over the past two years its net income has risen at a healthy 11 percent per year while its stock price has gone up a whopping 28 percent. That's great performance under any circumstance, but particularly so during the current challenging economic environment.

Dodson believes there is a direct correlation between stellar financial performance and great employees who provide great customer service, that the two - customer service and financial performance - go hand in hand. The beauty of having great employees and a culture that values great customer service is it attracts more of the same, and recruiting is easier because prospective employees 'self select.' In other words, positive results snowball.

I was reading some economic prognostications the other day when one factoid jumped out at me: The top 1 percent of Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in the United States in 2005. Not since the Great Depression has income inequality been greater, and not since the Great Depression has the country faced a more challenging downturn in the economy. If Les Schwab were alive today, I wonder what he would make of that statistic. My guess is he wouldn't be impressed. Then, too, I wonder how executives who are pulling down six- and seven-figure salaries connect with $8-an-hour employees and move them to provide the kind of customer service that will position their companies for the kind of growth that Les Schwab and NW Natural have experienced.

I went into a grocery store the other day that had those automated checkout machines with the scales and barcode readers. It worked after I fumbled around for a while, feeling like a dummy, but it sure didn't leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the company. Some 'efficiency expert' with no people skills must have invented this Rube Goldberg contraption, which may have saved them a little payroll, but is costing them a ton of PR. If that was a public company, I'd be tempted to short their stock with a bet they're going to give up market share to competitors that treat their customers as if they're the most important people in the world.

Rick Swart is publisher of the South County Spotlight. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.