Two executives relate stories of how pushing the limit on customer service paid off for their companies.
Is it possible to take customer service too far? Pushing the limit can pay off. Consider the examples below, from Stew Leonard's, a milk-delivery business that grew into a $200-million two-store grocery business in Norwalk, Conn.; and De Mar Plumbing, Heating & Air-conditioning, a $3.5-million company in Clovis, Calif.
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De Mar sticks by its price quotes and delivery dates, come rain or shine. Or mud, as CEO Larry Harmon recounts.
"Last November, we won a bid on a residential air conditioner and budgeted $100 for installation with a crane. But then we got some real heavy rains, the kind Southern California's famous for. On the day we were supposed to do the work, the ground was too wet to get the crane in, and there was no asphalt to drive it onto near the house. But since we had promised the customer we'd complete the job that same day, we hired a helicopter for $500.
"Let me tell you, it was freezing and foggy, and then it started raining. But we got the air conditioner installed, videotaped the work, and gave a copy of the tape to the customer. The customer offered to split the extra $400 expense with us, but I wanted to stick to our bid. So we covered it.
"Well, that customer showed the videotape at his New Year's Eve party, and we got three new leads and one sale from that. The sale was a five-ton unit, and our profit was $2,400. So for an initial $400 investment in customer service, we figure, our return was 600%.'
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Stew Leonard Jr., president of his family's business, encourages employees to use initiative in satisfying customers.
"One Saturday a lady comes in to order $30 worth of food for a lunch party of 20. My chef tells her she really should order more, but she insists. She picks it up, and a few hours later my manager Jerry gets a frantic phone call. She's on the other end, yelling, 'Why didn't you insist I buy more food? I'm going to run out!'
"So Jerry puts together a $30 tray and drives it over to her house and apologizes. She goes to pay him, and he says, 'No, it's on us.' Well, maybe that's not what I would have done, but when I heard about it on Monday I said, 'Hey, that's great.'
"Then I find out that the party was for 20 real estate agents new to the area. I mean, what's the first thing someone who's buying a house wants to know? Where's the grocery store! And right after their party all 20 came down to the store and bought hundreds and hundreds of dollars' worth of food -- they all had full shopping carts.' -- Reported by Phaedra Hise