Cus­tomer ser­vice reigns when busi­ness runs dry

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY AN­DREA BILLUPS

OKE­MOS, Mich. | Auto dealer Caleb Zand­stra con­fesses that he mon­i­tors his Black­Berry for cus­tomer in­put with the fe­roc­ity of a “doc­tor on call treat­ing a heart pa­tient.”

It’s a sign of his height­ened com­mit­ment to in­ten­sive cus­tomer ser­vice, “work­ing three times as hard as I did a year ago,” said Mr. Zand­stra, who owns the Oke­mos Auto Col­lec­tion.

“I’m avail­able 24/7. I an­swer all my calls like that,” he said with re­ces­sion-de­fy­ing re­solve.

Mr. Zand­stra joins a grow­ing cho­rus — from small busi­nesses to cor­po­ra­tions — that have rethought their mar­ket­ing strate­gies and per­son­al­ized their cus­tomer out­reach as the re­ces­sion cre­ates greater com­pe­ti­tion for con­sumer dol­lars.

The win­ner, even as the global econ­omy strug­gles to cor­rect, is the buyer, an­a­lysts say, not­ing that one sil­ver lin­ing to the na­tion’s money woes is that the cus­tomer has be­come king, a re­turn to those long-for­got­ten days when the cus­tomer was al­ways right.

“For the first time in years, it seems like com­pa­nies want my busi­ness. I mean, re­ally want my busi­ness,” Deloitte Con­sult­ing LLC prin­ci­pal Jonathan Copul­sky wrote in an ed­i­to­rial for the mar­ket­ing in­dus­try pub­li­ca­tion Brandweek.

“Of course, it’s not like they didn’t want it be­fore. But back in Fe­bru­ary, I be­gan to no­tice a decisive change in tone within brand ad­ver­tis­ing, one that crossed the sub­tle line from ‘we’d like you to buy our brand’ to ‘buy our brand — please.’ “

Mr. Copul­sky, a mar­ket­ing an­a­lyst who works in Chicago, said Sept. 29 that at­ten­tion to cus­tomer ser­vice has reached new lev­els and in some cases “his­toric ex­tremes.”

“In to­day’s econ­omy, com­pa­nies are be­ing much more ag­gres­sive than ever be­fore in go­ing af­ter new cus­tomers and try­ing to poach cus­tomers from com­peti­tors with fairly ag­gres­sive tac­tics,” he said.

He cited phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Pfizer, which an­nounced this sum­mer that it would of­fer its prod­ucts free (Vi­a­gra in­cluded) to cur­rent pa­tients who have lost their jobs in an ef­fort to keep their cus­tomers. He also lauded as “bril­liant” the U.S. Postal Ser­vice’s “A Sim­pler Way to Ship” cam­paign that al­lows cus­tomers to pur­chase a flat-rate box and, for a sin­gle fee, mail any­thing that fits in it, re­gard­less of weight.

“Even the gov­ern­ment has sunk to one knee in a plea for my dime,” Mr. Copul­sky wrote in the Brandweek ar­ti­cle of the Postal Ser­vice’s im­proved cus­tomer at­ti­tude as it strug­gles to re­tain mar­ket share and do more with less.

Brandweek ed­i­tor Todd Wasser­man said that al­though the econ­omy has driven this new ser­vice cli­mate, the In­ter­net has “has­tened it” and rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way con­sumers re­port on poor ser­vice. The bl­o­go­sphere, he said, has put many com­pa­nies on no­tice that if they don’t do right, their com­plaints will be outed to mil­lions with just a few key­strokes.

“In a bad econ­omy, mar­kets re­al­ize that their cus­tomers have a choice, whether pri­vate la­bel or their com­peti­tor,” he said. “They re­al­ize that if they have any weak link they have to ad­dress it be­cause any­one can Google a com­pany and find out how they are do­ing in terms of cus­tomer ser­vice.

“Some com­pa­nies are start­ing to of­fer on their Web sites re­al­time chats with a cus­tomer ser­vice per­son,” he said. “I think that is re­ally help­ful.”

Woe to the com­pany that doesn’t lis­ten and re­spond to le­git­i­mate gripes.

For ex­am­ple, Ann Minch posted a video called “Debtor’s Re­volt Be­gins Now” on YouTube in which she com­plained bit­terly about her credit card com­pany’s ar­bi­trary rais­ing of her in­ter­est rate from 12.99 per­cent to a whop­ping 30 per­cent.

“You are evil, thiev­ing [. . . ],” she spews in the 4 1/2-minute rant, which slams the U.S. bank­ing in­dus­try bailout as “the big­gest rip-off in the his­tory of the world.”

“I could get a bet­ter rate from a loan shark,” she said in a story first re­ported by CNNMoney.com. Af­ter her video re­ceived more than 350,000 views, her credit card com­pany re­stored the orig­i­nal in­ter­est rate.

“With the In­ter­net, the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate good or bad news has ex­ploded,” Mr. Copul­sky said about the pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare that can re­sult when a con­sumer is scorned.

It also can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect, he said. “If some­one has a great ex­pe­ri­ence with a prod­uct, com­pany or ser­vice, in sec­onds, lit­er­ally, they can spread that news through a va­ri­ety of de­vices — whether Twit­ter, Face­book, MyS­pace or LinkedIn — and take the mes­sage to thou­sands of peo­ple.”

For small-busi­ness own­ers, a tra­di­tional ap­proach works best, said one Florida com­pany that has re­vis­ited time-hon­ored prin­ci­ples that have built loy­alty.

“We make sure a per­son an­swers your call, ev­ery day of the week,” said Courte­nay Carr Russo, co-owner of Trop­i­cal De­light Daiquiris, a Mi­ami-based bev­er­age com­pany that de­pends on tourism dol­lars that have be­come more scarce in the re­ces­sion.

Like Mr. Zand­stra in Michi­gan, Mrs. Russo said, “We’re avail­able 24/7,” so if sup­ply runs low or equip­ment mal­func­tions, some­one is on call to make it right within 12 and not more than 24 hours. As a lo­cally owned busi­ness, that’s a value it can pro­vide that out-of-state com­peti­tors can­not — and one worth sell­ing, she said of her 18-yearold com­pany, which sells frozen drink mixes to bars, ho­tels and cruise lines.

Mrs. Russo said she has dug in harder to per­son­al­ize her busi­ness, by log­ging more miles for face-to-face vis­its and by lis­ten­ing to her cus­tomers and re­spond­ing to their needs. As restau­rant din­ers cut back on al­co­holic bev­er­ages, for ex­am­ple, her com­pany has of­fered ap­peal­ing non­al­co­holic fruit smooth­ies or cof­fee prod­ucts to take their place.

“We’re be­ing creative and we know our cus­tomers are our lifeblood,” she said. “We know they have to meet their bot­tom lines as well. If they suc­ceed, we suc­ceed — it’s a real part­ner­ship. From our point of view, by tak­ing care of cus­tomers and help­ing them get through a tough time, we will both be suc­cess­ful when we get out of this mess.”

Mr. Zand­stra, 24, said that when he gets a lead on a new cus­tomer, he e-mails a photo of him­self and a re­sume “so they know who they are talk­ing to.”

His com­pany will pick up, ser­vice and re­turn a ve­hi­cle within 300 miles, of­fer­ing cus­tomers a loaner car for their trou­ble.

If he’s sell­ing a used car, he re­searches its his­tory and writes a story about the ve­hi­cle as a way to make a case about its past — and its value in the fu­ture. The sto­ry­line serves as key to the buyer’s emo­tional in­vest­ment.

He said that even as “Amer­i­cans have given in to this sense of do-it-your­self in check­ing out gro­ceries, shop­ping on­line, pump­ing your own gas,” they also value “ex­clu­siv­ity” and a per­sonal touch.

“I’m putting the value on the per­son,” he says of his busi­ness strat­egy. “You need to al­ways give, if you want to re­ceive. And if you want it, you have to work for it, now more than ever.”

His hard work seems to be pay­ing off. In Septem­ber, Mr. Zand­stra sold 18 high-end au­to­mo­biles — BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz — de­spite the trou­bled econ­omy.

ARUN­DEL MILLS MALL IN HANOVER, MD.

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