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Customers, Professionals Offer Tales of Good, Bad Very Ugly Service

By Maureen Wallenfang, The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 7--The easiest way to define good customer service is to say what it isn't.

Ask the experts and you get an earful.

Three separate employees pounced on Jim Sullivan during a recent foray into a local sporting goods store, for example, prompting his perception that the service was overzealous. He set down his $300 in purchases and left the store empty handed.

"You can't fault them for being friendly and helpful, but it can be overdone. People were constantly asking, 'Find everything okay?' It was over-asking," said Sullivan, chief executive officer of the consulting firm Sullivision in Appleton and an expert on the subject of customer service. His clients include Walt Disney Co., Coca-Cola, American Express -- and obviously not the store in question.

"Men and women approach shopping differently," Sullivan said. "I'm a hunter. If see it, I want to shoot it and get out of there. I really don't need any help. I told this story at a party and all the people nodding in agreement were men."

Horst Schulze, considered a master at pleasing customers through his work at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, loves to amuse audiences with his tale of the dismissive bank teller.

"When I got to the front of the line, she screamed, 'Next!'" he shouted, getting a laugh from a convention crowd last month in Las Vegas. "She barely looked up and it was clear that she hated me. She said, 'Yes?' She had me in fear. I asked, 'Can you change a $50?' and she sighed. Before I had even stepped away, she yelled, 'Next!' I had my $50 in change, but the service was atrocious. Do you think I was a satisfied customer? I would forgive a product mistake. The rudeness, I don't forgive as a human being."

Schulze, now retired from his position as Ritz-Carlton president and chief operating officer, was instrumental in forming his hotel's high operating and service standards. Under his watch, the hotel won the coveted Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award twice.

Schulze revisits the bank teller scenario, offering his idea of what should have happened.

"She should have said, 'Welcome. What can I do for you? I'd be happy to help you. Have a nice day. The next gentleman please,'" he said in a polite tone.

Schulze said regulars should be called by name, and service must be personalized whenever possible.

"If you know, for example, that someone is a coin collector, you say 'You'll see that I put one of the new gold coins in your change because I know you collect coins.' There's a sense that they care about me. It develops trust."

Recently, Post-Crescent readers were invited to send in examples of good customer service. Responses fell into a variety of categories, with car sales and service -- a category where consumers are typically mistrustful -- topping the list.

In praising Les Stumpf Ford, for example, Appleton's Steve Bohatschek said there are so many poor ones out there that the good ones should be singled out.

"I've had the best treatment from the service department at Les Stumpf Ford. These people bend over backwards whenever my vehicle needs servicing. The job always gets done right the first time, and since I work in a different city, they always give me a nice loaner car if they have to keep my vehicle overnight. It's because of this that I won't buy a new vehicle anywhere else."

Anne Lindeke of Hortonville praised Fulton Auto/Van Linn's Transmission, a service station in Appleton. "It's a place I can go with full confidence that I will get the straight story and a fair deal. I can always count on them. They treat me like family."

Sullivan weighed in with a good car story of his own. After having his Honda serviced at Gustman in Kaukauna, he drove to the airport and noticed it was idling high.

With no time to spare, he parked at the airport and headed off to his flight.

"When I got to Orlando, I called the service department at Gustman's. They got a key from my wife, went to the airport, picked up my car and checked it out. They called me on my cell phone and told me what they'd done. They asked if I'd like them to drop the car back off at the airport, or pick it up.

"To me, that was ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty."

The lone restaurant singled out by readers was Cy's Asian Bistro in Neenah.

"This place is the gold standard for how to execute flawless customer service in a restaurant," wrote Duane McDonald of Neenah.

"Cy himself is always at the door greeting customers, has an amazing memory for repeat customers and always pays a visit to your table to make sure you were satisfied."

Owner Cy Thounsavath knows on which side his bread is buttered.

"You've got to thank customers. They support the business," he said. "It's the least I can do and I want them to return. I don't want them to be disappointed. If you're not happy with your meal, let me do it over."

Thounsavath's stroll around the restaurant talking to customers helps keep him upbeat and avoid burnout.

"I get energy from that. It gives you the drive."

Experts say good service should be virtually transparent.

"Customer service means never having to ask for anything," Sullivan suggested. "I should not be getting out of my chair, my car, my bed to get you to do your job."

The people who do it well, he said, have the ideas ingrained in their corporate cultures.

"The best service companies, like Nordstrom, Southwest, Disney, USAA (insurance) and Chick-fil-A, have strong cultures, thin rulebooks. They never treat a customer better than they do an employee."

Sullivan said customer service has almost lost its meaning in the workplace because "everyone touts it, but very few companies actually teach and reward it in a way that changes behavior."

"One important thing is that there should never be a customer service department," said David Salzwedel, owner of Excalibur Edge, a human resources training and development firm in Appleton. "Everyone in the company really is in customer service. It starts at the top of the organization and goes through the last person in the chain of command."

"Service means care," said Schulze. "It's the greatest driver of customer satisfaction. People say they want to feel at home. They didn't mean they want to be at their home. Subconsciously, they remembered how they felt in their mother's home. They were taken care of. There was no mention of how it happened or how it was paid for. It was feeling secure and well.

"When something was wrong, there was no argument or 'I'll call my manager.' Your Mom said, 'Let me help you.'" Two more ways a business shows it cares about its customer are its level of cleanliness and how the business is laid out to make the customer at ease, Schulze said.

Good service is on the wane for two principle reasons: conditioning and upbringing, Sullivan said.

"We've been conditioned to be consumer serfs," he said. "How long have you been bussing your own table at McDonald's or Arby's or Burger King? We don't deal with tellers anymore, we go to an ATM. We're not going to travel agents, we're going to the Internet to make travel plans. You trade off time for service."

In training employees at Disney, Sullivan learned a very important principle: "You cannot deliver a higher level of service than you have experienced."

Those who've experienced a close family upbringing may have an advantage.

"Some experts will argue that the root of bad service is tied to the disintegration of the classic nuclear family," said Sullivan. "You learn manners at home around the dinner table. If you are a latchkey kid, in the broad-brush stereotype, you don't learn the behavior of service at home, so you can't give it at work."


--Restaurant: Cy's Asian Bistro, Neenah

--Auto service and sales: Matt's Auto Repair, Neenah; Les Stumpf Ford, Appleton; Bergstrom Lexus of Appleton; Grand Chute Fulton Auto/Van Linn's Transmission, Appleton

--Boat sales: Ed's Boat Sales, Appleton

--Hardware: Kitz & Pfeil True Value, Menasha

--Drugstore: Walgreens, Menasha

--Retailers: Sears, Grand Chute; You're Special Gifts & Collectibles, Grand Chute; Office Depot, Appleton

--Grocery stores: Piggly Wiggly, Kaukauna; Copps Food Center, Appleton

--Shipping: FedEx, Greenville

--Salons: Salon Systems Hair Design, Appleton

--Computer services: Jay's Computer Service, Kaukauna

--Heating and cooling: Boucher's Heating & Cooling, Appleton

Source: Post-Crescent survey of readers


Evaluate three basic stages in a customer/business interaction to determine the quality of service, according to expert Horst Schulze, former president and chief operating officer at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company:

1) "The first step of service is the first contact, the first greeting, the first phone call. If the phone rings up to three times, it's a good greeting. If not, 30 percent of the trust is gone. You have already established that you are not trustworthy as an organization."

2) "Comply with the guest's wishes in a caring, complying, friendly, timely manner. Employees should be empowered to take care of problems. As the employee, you own the complaint. You make the decision. Make sure we don't lose the customer."

3) "Say farewell. Say 'thank you for letting me take care of you.'"


In February, Post-Crescent readers were invited to send in their best examples of great customer service. They included:

FedEx, Greenville "FedEx must recruit personnel based on smiles and charm, as they seem always pleased to see customers. (They're) very efficient and never let me down. If they are busy, they at least acknowledge your presence so you know they'll get to you as soon as they can. The person who hired them got lucky, or they recruit that way."

--Ken Krause, Town of Menasha

Piggly Wiggly, Kaukauna "From the moment I started shopping there, I could not believe how friendly everyone was. They go out of their way to help. They will even carry out your groceries and make it a point to ask if you need help. From the manager to the clerks, everyone does just a little extra to meet the customer's needs."

--Pat Lamberg, Combined Locks

Matt's Auto Repair, Neenah "A good mechanic is like a good barber. They know you, understand you and won't make you look foolish. Matt is as honest as they come. He will bend over backwards to get you what you need, even if it's another business that provides it."

--Duane McDonald, Neenah

Kitz & Pfeil True Value, Menasha "My husband does shopping there. They're so good to him. He walks with cane. They get everything on his list and bring it up to the counter for him."

--Loretta Omachinski, Menasha

Boucher's Heating and Cooling, Appleton "I've dealt with Boucher's Heating and Cooling twice and received great service both times. Boucher's installed a new high-efficiency furnace in our old home, and when we recently built our new home, they did a fine job installing the heating and cooling. Of the many contractors I dealt with, Boucher's. . . delivered the best service and workmanship."

--Jim Fox, Appleton

You're Special Gifts & Collectibles, Grand Chute "The warm greeting you receive when entering You're Special puts you in a relaxed shopping mood. If you are a frequent customer, your name is included in the greeting. Their service includes careful inspection of merchandise, free gift wrapping and a colorful newsletter informing patrons of upcoming sales and events."

--Jim and Carol Stepanski, Menasha

Salon Systems Hair Design, Appleton "(Owners) Lynn Derks and Rhonda Gannon are constantly going out of their way to meet the needs of their customers. If a customer has an emergency, a schedule conflict, or whatever, Lynn and Rhonda are always wiling to work extra hours, go in to the salon early, stay late or squeeze someone in."

--Sandra J. Conley, Appleton

-----To see more of The Post-Crescent, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

(c) 2004, The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. DIS, KO, AXP, F, HMC, 7267, WAG, S, ODP, FRSH,

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