Best Practices: Customer Service 101 Exceed Expectations

By Kathy Jonas – In 2014 CNN reported a story about a Southwest Airlines pilot who made a decision to hold a flight, contrary to company policy. The pilot was not reprimanded. In fact, he was praised by the company, and his decision resulted in positive publicity for the airline, which, as we all know, is part of an industry not often given credit for helping people.

The passenger was rushing to see his two-year-old grandson who was going to be removed from life support after suffering a brain injury. When the passenger encountered a long line at security, he called his wife, telling her in frustration that he was going to miss the flight. There was nothing he could do.

His wife called Southwest’s customer service line, and the next thing he knew, he was cleared to approach the gate and found himself running in his socks, not even taking the time to put on his shoes.

“We don’t hold the plane for every late customer, but I think we would all agree that these were extenuating circumstances, and the pilot absolutely made the right decision,” said the Southwest spokesperson.

This story illustrates the importance of employees who are empowered to think critically and make timely decisions that not only solve a customer’s problem but elevate the reputation of the company. In this case, the pilot’s decision won the jackpot: free, positive publicity before CNN’s worldwide viewership. It could have gone the other way: if the customer had not been allowed to get on the flight, he could have complained about the heartless attitude of a large corporation and been included in one of the frequent pieces about poor treatment by an airline.

What does this have to do with the post-frame industry? Everything. Every interaction between a person in your company and a customer, building official, prospective client, architect or engineer reflects directly on you. According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a dissatisfied customer will tell anywhere from nine to 15 people about your company, and 13 percent will share the negative experience with more than 20 people. That’s a lot of word-of-mouth damage in an industry dependent on word of mouth to procure new business.

We talked with Nick Alessandro, owner and director of sales at Diamond State Pole Buildings in Dover, Delaware, about the importance of customer service in the construction industry.

How does customer service in your business differ from that in a retail establishment?
In most retail establishments a consumer typically speaks with a pleasant, but untrained salesperson. Most retail salespeople are trained to smile and be helpful. In our company, a consumer speaks with a salesperson who is well trained in customer satisfaction. We express the importance of identifying wants and needs and really listening to the answers. This practice allows the salesperson to help the customer make an educated buying decision. We also feel that the “Golden Rule” (treat others the way you want to be treated) is inherently flawed. Everyone is different and therefore wants to be treated differently. Our salespeople treat each customer the way the customer wants to be treated!

How do you handle customer issues? Who in your company deals with customer concerns?
We are empathetic about the customer’s stress level when dealing with each layer of a major construction project. From the time of the signing on the dotted line to the final walk-through, we strive to keep the customer informed and included. Construction is no different from any other industry, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. In the event we have a customer concern, we take it very seriously. The policies and procedures we’ve implemented allow us to mitigate concerns as soon as possible. Both salespeople and project managers are given the authority to handle the issue and provide a product or service to make the customer happy without fear of criticism. If the concern cannot be handled at the level of the salesperson or project manager, the consumer is encouraged to speak with one of the owners. As one of the owners I will address the concern during normal business hours, after hours or on the weekend—whatever is best suited for the customer. Exceeding expectations is always my goal!

What kind of training do you do in this area?
We conduct sales meetings to discuss multiple aspects of our industry. During these meetings past customer issues are discussed, and new policies are put in place so we avoid similar problems in the future. Our construction department holds weekly meetings as well. Current projects, punch-list items and any warranty or goodwill items are discussed.

What are the challenges you face? What is your philosophy about dealing with customers?
The biggest challenge we face today is government regulations. There are countless layers of nonsensical regulations that do nothing more than drive up costs and delay progress. It is unfortunate and becoming more frequent that we’re having to tell customers they cannot build what they want because of a code requirement. The consumer must decide to go through the costly and time-consuming variance process, concede and make changes or abandon the project completely. When one of these issues arises, we discuss every option with our customer. We aid in any way possible. I personally have been to countless variance meetings to speak on my customers’ behalf.

How do you get everyone on board to reflect this philosophy?
My business partner and I often mention how lucky we are to work with the group of people who are our employees. Our philosophy is teamwork! Everyone is equally important, and everyone’s job is vital to our success. We give all associates the autonomy to do their job without being micromanaged. Our associates are invested in all aspects of daily operations, and their opinions are solicited regarding all major business decisions. As owners, my business partner and I do what we can. We offer competitive salaries and a 401(k) plan, and we pay for the employees’ health care. We’ve enjoyed double-digit growth every year in business with the exception of 2012, when we hit triple digits with 102 percent growth. That can only be accomplished with high-quality hardworking people working as a team. My business partner and I notice their hard work and dedication. We appreciate it and acknowledge it every day.

Source: Frame Building News, official publication of the National Frame Building Association

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