By Bob Nieman | Jul 30, 2012
Robert Spector has been involved in customer service since the age of 13, when he first went to work in his parents’ butcher shop in the farmers’ market in Perth Amboy, N.J. Working alongside his mom and dad, he learned firsthand what it takes to take care of customers – and to keep them loyal. Those lessons inspired his book, “The Mom & Pop Store,” which features interviews with successful independent retailers from all over the world. He believes that the elements of world-class customer service are the same, whether they come from Spector’s Meat Market, Nordstrom or Amazon.com, the subject of his international bestseller, “Amazon.com: Get Big Fast.”
Spector – also the author of the business classic “The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America’s Number One Customer Service Company” – is recognized worldwide as a leading authority on customer service.
Robert Spector Consulting has been helping companies create their own customer service experiences for more than 20 years. The company offers inspirational keynote presentations, customized workshops and comprehensive consulting for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Spector will be a featured presenter this October at the CLA’s Excellence in Laundry Conference.
How do you define “customer service?”
I consider customer service not just a smiling person who takes care of you when you come into their place of business. Customer service entails everything. It’s the physical feel of your laundromat. It’s the lighting, the signage and the seating. That’s all wrapped up in the customer experience.
A lot of times, when we hear the term “customer service,” we think of just the interaction between buyer and seller, but it’s the engagement – it’s the entire customer experience. To me, the main thing is how you make life easier for the customer and how you provide a great experience.
This means knowing and anticipating every possible need your customer might have and also finding ways to surprise and delight the customer so that they continue to do business with you. And that customer will in turn become your best source of advertising, because word of mouth is the most powerful advertising of all.
What are the keys to excellent customer service?
The most important thing is to know who your customer is – their needs, their lifestyle, their challenges. With that knowledge, you can create a memorable and enjoyable experience.
It really comes down to very simple things. Ask yourself: if you were a customer of your business, what would you be looking for to make it a great experience? Not just to satisfy the basic expectations, but to feel a connection and a sense of loyalty.
As a laundry customer, I have a task I need to accomplish. How are you going to make it easy for me to do that, and what’s going to bring me back to your business, as opposed to me going to your competition? After all, it isn’t just about “doing laundry.” In terms of the laundry business, it’s about creating an inviting place and anticipating the needs of your customers, because your competitors are offering a similar service at a similar price. So, what is going to differentiate you from your competitor? It’s going to be providing that experience.
At Nordstrom, other than its private label products, the company is selling shirts, dresses and other items you can get elsewhere – and often at better prices. However, at other retailers, you’re not going to get the same experience – that salesperson who wants to help you, and who may help you with multiple sales and become your “salesfriend,” as opposed to your salesperson.
And getting back to word of mouth, Nordstrom doesn’t advertise its customer service. In fact, the company barely ever mentions it publicly, yet virtually everyone knows about it. I’ve given talks on Nordstrom in 23 countries, and people who have never set foot inside a Nordstrom store have heard the company’s reputation for customer service. How do these people learn about it if Nordstrom doesn’t advertise it or publicize it?
It is truly word of mouth. People talk about good things. And people enjoy even more talking about bad experiences. So, it’s important to realize that your laundry business is not simply about the transaction – it’s about building lasting relationships with customers.
What are some simple ways store owners can immediately enhance the customer experience at their locations?
Are you providing a true experience? Or do I just put my clothes in a washer and wait for it to be done so that I can put it in the dryer? Is the seating comfortable? Are there other things for me to do? Do you provide WiFi? Do you provide a place where I can recharge my cell phone? Is there a community bulletin board?
Perhaps you can create partnerships with other local businesses that provide complementary services, such as nail salons or massage therapists. Do you want people to just stay in your business, waiting for the wash cycle to finish, or maybe there is a coffee shop next door? Or maybe you can provide coffee?
How about getting involved with a local charity? Maybe there is a clothing drive you can participate in. It’s essential to become a part of the community.
How can laundry owners develop stronger customer loyalty?
They can survey their customers. For instance, just as one example, some coin laundry customers may be more ecologically conscious than others, so the laundry owner may consider providing different types of detergents for these individuals.
On your website, you talk about the “inverted pyramid” methodology regarding customer service. Can you elaborate on that?
Of course, this philosophy pertains more to a larger organization. At Nordstrom, they’ve used this inverted pyramid to represent their corporate structure for that last 40 or 50 years. Picture a pyramid on its point; at the very top at its broadest are the customers, since they are the most important. On the next level, below the customers, are the salespeople, because they are the ones who are interacting with the customers. They are your immediate point of action with the customers. And then below the salespeople are all of the support people – managers, maintenance people, all the way down to the lowly board of directors. Everybody is supporting the salespeople who are supporting the customers.
In a smaller operation like a coin laundry, it’s the idea that you need to find ways to support the attendants you’ve hired to work in your store, because they are the ones who are interacting with the customers. It’s about giving them that working environment I’ve just explained and giving them the ability to make decisions – whatever it takes for them to answer customer questions on the spot, as opposed to saying, “My manager is away, let me get back to you.”
At Nordstrom, the inverted pyramid is both a literal and a symbolic way in which they run the business.
How can a laundry owner put his or her store attendants in the best position to serve the customer?
It comes down to training on customer service practices, procedures and problem-solving tactics. And your customers will tell you what they need. You just have to ask them. They aren’t shy.
Communication is very important.
For most businesses, one of the biggest problems is communication. It doesn’t matter how large or how small a business is. Are you communicating with your employees? Are you giving them the best information you can?
Also, are you reinforcing the idea that, after all is said and done, your customers are the really ones who are signing their paychecks?
I worked in my dad’s butcher shop while going to college. And one Saturday during my senior year, this long-time customer said, “I hear you’re about to graduate. You should thank me.” I was 21 at the time and probably gave him a puzzled look. So he continued, “I’ve been a customer of your father’s for 20 years. I paid for your college education.” Then I said, “Well, you’re right. Thank you.”
Your employees need to know that, while it’s Mr. or Ms. Owner’s name on the paycheck, after all is said and done, if the customers don’t come into the laundromat, there is no paycheck – there is no business.
In fact, Nordstrom employees’ paychecks are signed by Blake Nordstrom, who is the president of the company, but the checks also say, “Blake Nordstrom, on behalf of Nordstrom customers.”
Of course, you’re the author of the popular business classic, “The Nordstrom Way.” What specifically sets Nordstrom apart from other retailers?
This book is in its sixth edition over the past 17 years. The most recent edition just came out. It’s a total rethinking of the previous ones. I wrote a big update in 2005, which basically blew up the original book; and this year I’ve blown up the 2005 book – totally changed the structure and the chapters.
There are a few things that a similar, such as a lot of the company history. However, I’m the only author I can think of who has had the opportunity to look at the same company over this period of time and reevaluate what makes it work. In this new book, I’ve got 10 chapters. Seven of the 10 are on culture, and the last three are on customer engagement.
The Nordstrom story is really a culture story. It starts with the culture and the fact that they understand that customer service is what brought them to the dance. They sell things similar to every other department store, but no other brick-and-mortar retailer can match them in terms of the consistency and the attention to the customer.
We’re looking at the culture and getting people on board as to what the company stands for. Then we look at how to engage the customer in 2012 and beyond – so it’s initiatives like mobile point-of-sale devices that you’d find in an Apple store. Employees aren’t tethered to the cash terminal, so they can accept somebody’s credit card easily. And Nordstrom salespeople have access to all the company’s inventory, both for the online and brick-and-mortar businesses.
For example, if you’re looking for a Tommy Bahama shirt and they don’t have your size in a particular style that you’re looking for, the salesperson can go online and look at the whole store; it might be in a warehouse or at a store across town or across the country.
So, it’s about finding new ways in the modern age to connect with the customer. And it’s the same thing with social media or texting. If you’re a regular customer of mine and I know that you like a particular label or designer, and a new item comes in, I’ll take a picture of it and send it to you: “What do you think? Is that something you’d be interested in?”
That saves people time and it maintains that relationship with the customer, using the technology that we have today.
It comes down to creating relationships. In retail, we have meaningful, yet superficial relationships with our salesperson. They know us. They may know our spouse’s name and how many children we have, but they’re not our best friend. We don’t go to the ballgame with them. So we have this relationship with them that’s built around our personal tastes.
How can laundry owners become the “Nordstroms” of their own marketplaces?
It is simple. Nordstrom is a people culture. And laundries are a people culture as well.
If you call Nordstrom, a real person will answer the phone. You will not get a recorded message saying, “Your call is important to us… our menu has recently changed.” You can even call the top executives at Nordstrom; they answer their own phones. If you wanted to speak to Blake Nordstrom, who runs the company, you can call and ask for him, and if he’s around, he’ll answer his phone.
These guys aren’t hiding from the customers. They want to hear from the customers because they screw up just like all of us do. If somebody receives bad service, they want to know about it. They don’t talk about their service because they know they’re not perfect.
In my travels, I do a lot of speaking and people will come up to me and tell me their good Nordstrom customer service stories, as well as their not-so-good stories. When they have had a negative experience – and this has happened several times – I’ll ask them to send me an e-mail of what they have just told me, and I’ll send it to the Nordstroms on their behalf, and then they’ll respond. And they always do.
They have 50,000 employees, so the chances of somebody providing bad service are pretty high. But, often, it isn’t about just providing good service; it’s the company’s response when something goes awry. How do you fix it?
It’s like any relationship. If you’re in a relationship and everything is fine all the time and nothing has gone wrong and we’re all just dancing along merrily as we go… anybody can be in relationship like that. But when you’ve got friction and adversity and you’re able to get through it, that’s what strengthens a relationship.
You have to look at a negative experience as an opportunity. When people have a bad experience, most of them just want to be acknowledged: “I understand we screwed up here, and we sincerely apologize. Could you give us a chance to win back your business?”
And, for the most part, customers will respond positively to that. People just want to be heard. Your customers want to be respected for who they are and what they do and that they are valuable.
You’ve also written a book called “The Mom & Pop Store.” Can you talk about that book and what you learned in the process of researching and writing it?
I come from a mom-and-pop business. My parents had a butcher shop in New Jersey, so I speak about this from personal experience. And, in writing that book, I was fascinated by the intersection between community and trade. Trade is the oldest commercial relationship that human beings have; it’s what makes us civilized. And the format for trade really hasn’t changed all the much over the course of 6,000 or 7,000 years. It’s making that connection with the person across the counter from you so that they come back. It’s no more complicated than that. It’s just showing creative ways to bring them back. It’s being nice to them. It’s providing what they’re looking for. And it’s valuing them as customers.
When this book came out a couple of years ago, I wrote a magazine article, asking a few of the businesses featured in the book how they were coping with the recession. And I got some great responses.
There is an independent coffee shop I go to every morning. It’s a little 300-square-foot place, and there are generally two baristas there at a time. There are four full-time employees, and the owner said that everybody collectively knew the names of all the regulars that come in. How earth-shattering is that? So, they did something as simple as remembering their customers’ names.
Also, there is a store in suburban Maryland, called the Great British Pine Mind. They sell antique pine furniture from England and various parts of Europe. When the recession hit, buying antique pine furniture was not number one on a lot of people’s minds. What did they do? They have a company vehicle, and they donated it to local charity clothing drives. They let the people in charge of these drives use their truck, so potential customers saw their logo and their truck and the fact that the company was a part of the community. It’s the small gestures that count.
I interviewed many multi-generational businesses for the book, too. And we discussed adapting to change, because change is occurring all the time. Neighborhoods are changing; competition is changing and so on.
How do you survive? How do you adapt? One of my very favorite businesses that I profiled in the book is in Los Angeles. It was initially – and for almost 90 years – an Italian grocery store. However, it is in a neighborhood that is no longer Italian. It is about 20,000 square feet, so it’s too big to be a specialty store and too small to be a supermarket. It wasn’t making any money selling dog food and detergent. The owner, who was in his 60s, was going out of business; he was running it on his credit card.
But he always loved soda pop – not Coke and Pepsi, but small-run boutique soda pop. So, he started getting rid of all the items from which he couldn’t make any money and started bringing in all of these specialty soda pops. Today, he’s got a website called sodapopstop.com, and he sells 500 different kinds of specialty sodas.
Another great example of adapting to change is Dinkel’s Bakery, which is a third-generation German bakery in Chicago. When Norm Dinkel’s grandfather ran the business, it was a seven-day-a-week business. But now bakeries are weekend businesses, so how does he make up for that lost business? He sells his special German baked goods online, and all of the displaced Chicagoans around the world order from dinkels.com. The Internet saved his business.
Again, those are just two examples of adapting to change and still maintaining the integrity of what you do. I would definitely say that the ability to adapt to change is the key to survival.
What one thing would you most like the coin laundry owners reading this interview to take away from it?
I’d like them to remember that they have complete control of the customer experience. And, if they want to succeed in their business, they need to make the customer experience as rich as possible while still making it as profitable as possible.