To my father, being polite or courteous wasn't enough: he was--and demanded the same from those who worked for him--always gracious to customers. To him, graciousness meant being courteous, polite, thoughtful, obliging, responsive and magnanimous. I thought about my father and contrasted how he handled his business as I wrestled with our bank over a service fee.
When a $250 "Account Analysis Fee" appeared on our monthly statement, I complained to the bank branch manager, who sympathetically told me that I had to speak to the commercial account representative. I called and left a message for him; a week later, I left another message, and then still another. When he finally returned my call, he informed me that he would change our account so there would be no more charges and he would look into refunding the fees they had removed from our account. The next month we were again charged the analysis fee and I realized our account representative had failed to carry through on the commitment he had made.
It's not just the banks. In all types of businesses, CEOs and boards of directors, isolated from customers, under pressure to maximize profits and hounded by stock analysis are allowing the "bean counters" to determine how they approach their customers. They have succumbed to the arguments: That automation can replace the human touch; that customers will put up with "customer service" outsourced overseas; that the wait times, errors and inefficiencies occasioned by reduced staff will be forgiven and that Americans are so shallow that only price makes a difference.
When I first went to work for him, I didn't understand my father's role in his company. He had managers who handled operations and a bookkeeper and secretaries who administered the back office. He arrived at 9 a.m., went to the post office an hour later, took more than an hour for lunch, played golf on Wednesday afternoons, and left for home by 5 p.m. What a life! It was years before I came to the realization that through his interaction with customers, my dad was our company's No. 1 salesperson.
His schedule was based upon connecting with people. He arrived at the office after having coffee with our banker and other businessmen. He timed his visit to the post office to coincide with customers retrieving their mail. Lunch was often with a client. And on Wednesdays he played "customer" golf. He knew his customers: their problems, needs and opinions of our service. In return, they knew, liked, and wanted to do business with him. Not only did he interact with them, he also set the example of how we were to deal with our customers.
Prior to my appointment with a new doctor, I looked him up online and found he had two addresses. I went to the first location, a large building housing a number of offices but not that of the doctor I was scheduled to see. Concerned about being late for my appointment, I called the physician's office and was disdainfully informed that I was in the wrong location and impatiently directed to the correct address.
When I arrived at the doctor's office, the receptionist, without a greeting or smile, handed me a clipboard and ordered me to fill out an attached form and, when I returned with the completed questionnaire, demanded a payment. By the time I saw the doctor I was ready to do battle. He turned out to be a nice guy and a good physician but he almost lost me as a patient before we met.
Different from the doctor's staff, my father insisted that all customers be treated graciously. He was never too busy to say hello, to inquire about family or to offer to help. He built relationships that served us for more than 50 years.
Companies that focus on profit and neglect customer service and satisfaction suffer in the long run. I think of the junk American auto manufacturers turned out in the 1960s and the market share they lost to higher quality--and in some instances, more expensive==foreign imports. There are other well-known examples of the same.
In a world where it is increasingly uncommon to do so, treating your customers graciously is a deciding factor in developing loyal relationships. It's up to the person in charge, to set the example for doing so.
Tucker is president of the Florida Building Material Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in FBMA's March 3 newsletter.