The key to outstanding customer service is to find out what customers want and then give it to them. The best way to do that, contends Gary Nelson, is to form a customer advisory board to help you see your customer's point of view.

Nelson runs Arrowhead Nursery, a $2-million garden center, located in Wayland, Mass. His nearest competitor is only a half mile away. Rather than just talking to walk-ins, Nelson invites between five to seven customers, who vary in income and in their degree of happiness with his business, to sit for a year on an advisory board. The board members meet three times a year to tell Nelson whether they liked new displays, whether new products proved to be of high quality, and whether employees were helpful and courteous. Nelson then presents his upcoming plans and asks for critiques. Once board members see some of their ideas implemented, Nelson says, they get all fired up.

Nelson asks his staff to nominate customers as potential board members. Once a year he asks nominees to serve as advisers. Nelson takes board members to a different restaurant for each of the three lunchtime meetings, gives them a $50 gift certificate, and tries to get the local paper to list their names when they are appointed. "You don't have to make a big deal over it," Nelson says. "Just show a little appreciation."

Copyright 1997 G+J USA Publishing