Customer service is becoming all the rage. But is it more than smiles and warm fuzzy feelings?

G M is bigger. Ford is richer. But neither of them beats Chrysler when it comes to satisfying the customer. Who says? You do. For three years in a row, Chrysler has the highest customer satisfaction of any American car company. Not GM. Not Ford. Chrysler."

-- Lee Iacocca, chairman, Chrysler Corp.

"Whether it be with a new aircraft order, or a hot cup of coffee, we're working hard to satisfy you, our valued customer."

-- Ad in Continental Airlines magazine, Profiles

"We deliver." -- U.S. Postal Service


In the 1960s marketing was the answer. In the '70s it was management. In the '80s? Excellence. And now -- as we enter the 1990s -- customer service is being billed as the solution to all of America's business problems.

Anytime Chrysler (which you'll notice didn't compare itself to Honda, Toyota, or any of the other car companies with far higher customer satisfaction ratings), Continental (the airline you love to hate), and the U.S. Postal Service (nuff said) start talking about customer service, you know you have a serious trend on your hands.

Want proof? Check your local bookstore -- truly awful books about customer service continue to flood the shelves (see "For Service, Please Hold," May 1989, [Article link]). Customer-service seminars are springing up like weeds after a rain. And even Forbes, that last bastion of reactionary management thought, reported recently that being nice to customers is good.

There's no question about it. What we have here is a full-blown fad.

But fads by definition are transitory. People believe in them until something more intriguing comes along. If you think of it in those terms, then customer service is the bell-bottom blue jeans of the 1990s.

Barry Fribush doesn't think that way.

Sure, Fribush, now 48, was trendy in his day. After all, he worked as a road manager for most of the great Motown groups of the 1960s -- including the Miracles, Temptations, Supremes, and Marvin Gaye. But Fribush, now the president of The Bubbling Bath Spa & Tub Works Inc., in Rockville, Md., is not trying to be hip by providing customer service. Customer service is his competitive edge. It's how he can stave off the half-dozen competitors he has within a five-mile radius.

It's been a remarkably effective defense. Bubbling Bath placed 340th on the 1989 Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing small private companies.

And it got there because Fribush was looking for a way to avoid the high cost of advertising.

Unable to afford splashy spots when he was setting up shop, Fribush realized that the easiest -- and least expensive -- way to get customers was through word-of-mouth referrals. And there's no way you're going to get those recommendations if you provide bad service.

So from the very start, Fribush tried to figure out what it would take to get his customers to say nice things about his business. He began with his merchandise, remembering what had gotten him into the business in the first place.

In the late 1970s, when Fribush was still running a printing business and advertising agency in his native Washington, D.C., he had gone shopping for a spa, at the time still very much a left coast phenomenon. "When I finally found one, it was terrible," he says. "It kept breaking down and there was no easy way to get it repaired. I figured I could do a better job selling and servicing them." Because Fribush the customer was miserable when he bought a cheap spa, Fribush the business owner doesn't sell cheap spas.

He stocks only those with a proven track record for reliability. "On top of that, we test every spa before it goes out of here. Sometimes manufacturers let a bad one get through. We make sure it doesn't get to our customers." Fribush has introduced the use of a high-performance installation package that includes extra-heavy electrical wiring and safety temperature controls, and he was the first on the East Coast to use stainless-steel casing around the heating element instead of plastic, which had a tendency to melt. Many of his innovations have been adopted as standards in the industry. "If you try to scrimp, you end up having to spend more time supporting it."

If customers do have a complaint, there is always someone there to deal with it. Fribush boasts of a four-hour response time -- without a full-time service staff.

"It's silly for us to have a full-time crew, since most of the service calls come in between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.," Fribush says. That's when people come home from work, flip on the spa, and find it isn't working. So Fribush has a skeleton staff work during the day and has geared up for the early evening by hiring a number of people who work just during the evening rush.

That decision sets off a whole string of dominoes, all of which work to Fribush's favor. His labor costs are lower, since he can get by with part-timers, but the type of people he hires ensures the quality of work he gets is higher. "Because we are looking for people to work in the evenings, we are able to hire repairmen who work during the day fixing photocopiers and computers for companies like Xerox, Honeywell, and IBM," he explains. "Since most spas today are computerized, there is not a lot of difference between fixing the control panel for a copier and one for a spa. Plus, by hiring these people I not only get people with excellent mechanical skills -- they wouldn't be working for Xerox unless they were good -- but they also have been trained in how to deal with the public."

Because his people work part-time, Fribush can afford to pay more on an hourly basis. He does -- up to $25 a hour, which is triple what his competitors start service people at. But Fribush makes sure he is getting his money's worth. First, all service people are required to own a spa. (Fribush sells it to them at cost.) That way they'll know firsthand what is likely to go wrong. Second, he doesn't pay for much travel time. The repair people are assigned jobs near their homes. Third, they don't get paid if they have to go back and do a job over.

"Callbacks were a huge problem when we were first starting out," Fribush says. "They were averaging 30% of all the jobs. Since we have instituted this policy of not paying for them, they've just about been eliminated." Again, Fribush is ensuring good service -- every customer wants the job done right the first time.

Not surprisingly, Fribush's approach to service has paid off. He estimates 65% of the people who walk through his door on Maryland Route 355 do so because a neighbor or friend has recommended Bubbling Bath. (He makes sure the word gets out by giving existing customers $50 worth of chemicals or $50 off a future service call if someone they recommend buys from Bubbling Bath.) Once inside the showroom, they find out that their friend's endorsement wasn't an isolated case. Fribush posts letters from satisfied customers on virtually any surface big enough to hold them.

The only problem -- if you want to call it that -- is that Fribush's devotion to customer service restrains his growth rate. "We will grow, as long as we are able to support what we sell. At the moment I just can't find enough good people to grow any faster."

Still, revenues should reach $2 million this year and have grown at a five-year growth rate of 844%, so it can't be that much of a restriction. Neither, it seems, is selling on service.


You can teach people how to provide good customer service. Here's how

When you think about customer service, do you start to roll your eyes? Sure, it's important, you say, but taking care of customers is a tricky thing. It's not like reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, subjects that can be taught.

Phooey, says Bubbling Bath's Barry Fribush. You can approach customer service just as you would any other part of your business -- systematically.

* It starts with the product. If the product you sell keeps breaking down, you're not going to have satisfied customers. Fribush stocks only those spas with proven track records.

* Trust the person who owns one. If you want your service people to truly understand the product they work on, they must own one. That way they'll experience the problems they're asked to fix. Not only will it add to their technical skills, but they'll become sympathetic as well.

* Have your customers set your service hours. It does your reputation for customer service absolutely no good to have all your service people work 9:00 to 5:00 if most of the service calls come in after that. Track when people call in for help, and staff accordingly.

* It's done right, or you don't get paid. One way to prevent callbacks -- having to fix the same thing twice -- is not to pay for shoddy work. If Bubbling Bath has to fix the same job within 30 days, the service person who did the work doesn't get paid for the second repair. Before he instituted the policy, Fribush says, for every 10 jobs he did, 3 customers called back to say the repair didn't work. He now gets 6 calls a year.