Attracting and Maintaining Customers

SEMA News - December 2009

SEMA Webinar Reveals the Principles of Customer Service

SEMA NEWS-DECEMBER 2009-BUSINESS-WEBINARSNordstrom has fast become synonymous with customer service, as detailed in an anecdote involving the clothing retailer and a set of tires. Plenty of us have heard the story by now: A customer tried to return a set of tires to Nordstrom soon after it purchased Alaska-based Northern Commercial Co. in 1975. Even though Nordstrom never sold tires and the set had instead been purchased from the obsolete Northern Commercial Co., the return was accepted.

Many publications have since tried to verify this urban legend but, according to a 1988 Washington Post article, “Nordstrom officials insist that the tire story is apocryphal.” But it does highlight the company’s ongoing reputation for excellent customer service, which Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way, discussed during a recent SEMA webinar, “The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service.”

Spector began his presentation by asking webinar attendees to contemplate the following questions:

  • Am I offering a better product or service than my competitors?
  • Am I selling a less expensive product or services than my competitors?
  • Am I offering customer service that is superior to that of my competitors?

“If your answer to one or two is no, then your answer to three must be yes or you will not survive as a company,” Spector said, explaining that the products and services offered within most industries are generally very similar. With pricing also a related feature, customer service is the one area where a business can set itself apart from its competition. Spector outlined nine management principles that allow a business to offer customer service in the Nordstrom spirit, even without the size and resources of the retail giant.

“Not everyone is going to be like Nordstrom, but adapting the principles to what is within the scope of reality for your company, that is what is going to determine the level of service that you will be able to give,” he said. The nine principles included are:

Part I: Romancing Your Customer

  1. Create an inviting place—in person, online and on the phone.
  2. Provide your customers with choices—of products, services and service channels.
  3. Sell the relationship: Service your customers through the products and services you offer.

Part II: Energizing Your Employees

  1. Hire nice, motivated people.
  2. Empower employees to take ownership.
  3. Sustain the people on the front lines through a culture of support and mentoring.

Part III: Building Your Customer Service Culture

  1. Celebrate company heroes through recognition and praise.
  2. Advocate teamwork through internal customer service.
  3. Commit 100% to customer service.

Customer Service Is Not a Strategy

Some companies explain their customer service strategy in advertising or as a company initiative to employees. This approach is a mistake, Spector said. “Classifying customer service as a strategy makes it sound like a temporary thing. Whether business is up or down, customer service is a way of life. It’s the customer who determines whether your company will succeed or fail.”

Each Employee Is in the Customer Service Department

Spector explained that you are in the customer service department regardless of your job title. This reality is a key factor that differentiates your company from the competition. “Delivering great customer service is not for wimps; it’s a proactive part of business that needs to be done every day.”

Think Like the Customer

Ask yourself: If you were a customer of your company, how would you want to be treated? “All of us are customers at some point of the day,” said Spector. “We know what represents good service, and we know what represents bad service.” However, according to Spector, most businesses are set up to create ease for the company instead of considering what is best for the customer.

Spector emphasized that almost every move your company makes should be customer-driven. “Excellent customer service is more than buying and selling products and services—it’s seeing your customer as a person,” Spector said. “It’s about coming in contact with a customer, identifying that customer’s specific needs and taking care of them.”

Penny A. Naus, customer service supervisor at Westin Automotive Products Inc., a manufacturer of truck and SUV accessories, attended the webinar and found it to be an excellent refresher course on the principles that drive a company’s success. “Good customer service is very important because that’s what keeps our customers coming back,” she said. “They come back based on how we treat them.”

As a veteran of the retail segment, Naus was able to testify to the authenticity of Spector’s advice and examples. “It was useful to hear the different scenarios that he used to demonstrate examples of good customer service, especially during the Q&A when people got to call in their questions,” she said. “I’ve come across a lot of the stuff that he’s talked about and then some.”

One caller asked how to deal with a customer who is simply mean.

“The first thing is to calm them down and then try to see what the problem is. What is the source of their irritation?” said Spector. “You don’t grab on to that person’s anger. You have to let it pass through you and ask, ‘What can we do to make this right?’”

He also stated that it is okay to part ways and say that the relationship is not working out if the customer continues to be irate. “I don’t believe that the customer is always right,” Spector said. “Sometimes the customer is wrong. It’s okay to say that, but I think the big challenge is to maintain your own sense of who you are, your own sense of right and wrong. Just because the customer is irate doesn’t mean that you have to respond in kind.”

In response to another caller’s question, Spector offered the following advice: “Use your own experience as a customer as to what businesses appeal to you,” he said. “Think like the customer. What would you respond to? Chances are, there are other people out there who will respond to the same thing.”

It’s a frequently repeated piece of advice. It’s often forgotten, but always apt in a customer-driven world.

Download a PDF and audio version of this webinar. SEMA members may access all past webinars free of charge.