Two years ago during the judging for the PROSALES Excellence Awards, Johan van Tilburg, technology guru and president of Knoxville, Tenn.–based pro dealer Tindell's, took a straw poll on who among the PROSALES staff and fellow judges had affirmed their coolness factor and purchased an iPod, the handheld digital music and video player produced by Cupertino, Calif.–based Apple Computer. I only half raised my hand. I had purchased an iPod for my girlfriend, but hadn't yet been able to migrate away from my trusty portable CD player.

This past May, I finally found myself in a big box entertainment store purchasing the new 30-gigabyte video iPod. I've had enough electronics and tools and cars break down on me over the years to know that buying supplemental product warranties is always a good idea, and this store makes the purchase of said warranties remarkably easy. So when my ear buds fizzled out four months later I figured I'd just stop by the big box's service counter to get a replacement under my warranty. Fat chance. After I had waited in line for a good 45 minutes, it took several employees (including a manager) to decide that under the terms of my warranty—which excluded “peripheral” items—I was stuck with my bad buds. They didn't even say “Sorry” or “Thank you,” just “Next in line.”

On the advice of several people, I took the battered earphones and saddled up to the “Genius Bar” at an Apple Store. A concept based on the service-first atmosphere of Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons Hotels, Genius Bars have been called the “soul of Apple's retail sales” by Apple vice president Ron Johnson. Located at the rear of each of Apple's 150-plus retail locations, the Genius Bars are staffed with product experts that calmly and confidently troubleshoot all of your tech problems away. They even tell jokes. There are no sales, just some of the best customer service around. In seconds, my Genius gave me a new pair of ear buds, an additional one-year warranty on my iPod—and its peripherals—and even recommended some competitor headphones that I might find more useful. All free of charge.

The difference between my two experiences became clear when I did a little research on the Geniuses that Apple employs. Although many already have a tech background, Apple also provides two months of training—four weeks at corporate headquarters and four weeks in the retail store. That investment—and the all-service, no-sales atmosphere at the Genius Bar—pays off. When I left the store, I couldn't wait to do business with Apple again.

Pro dealers interviewed for this month's issue of PROSALES are finding that similar investments in the quality and knowledge of their front-line staff make a big difference in bottom-line success. In “Team Players,” an article by contributing editor John Caulfield on exclusive PROSALES sales compensation research beginning on page 62, numerous dealers testify that more support and training equals better customer service results and a greater volume of new business. Caulfield interviewed several pros—including McCray Lumber and Raymond Building Supply—conducting training programs for new salespeople that can last longer than six months, and those salespeople are further being supported by management and strong inside sales teams.

It may seem cliché, and I admit even I find the maxim a bit trying at times, but business success—particularly in a customer service atmosphere—really is “all about the people.” Bernie Niehaus, one of the recipients of NLBMDA's 2006 Excellence in Human Resources Award profiled on page 81, sums it up best: “You can have the most beautiful store in the country with all the latest and greatest inventory, but if you don't have good people, you have nothing. Not only do you have to look for good people, you have to train them, and they have to have the right attitude, or your customers are not going to come back.”

That's the message that the big box needed to hear, but it likely would have fallen on deaf ears. Here's hoping that your company, like Apple, instead takes that message to the core.

Contact Chris Wood, Executive Editor
415.315.1241 x307