Blue Chips

Last spring, when Mobil Corp. needed sophisticated advice about customer service, the oil giant, based in Fairfax, Va., knew exactly whom to ask: Maynard Forbes.

No, Forbes isn't the author of a hot new book on keeping the customer satisfied. He does run a business, but it's not quite on the same scale as Mobil's. Forbes has 14 workers, while Mobil employs more than 37,000. And while Mobil's revenues climbed to more than $75 billion last year, Forbes posted a modest $1 million. Mobil boasts 7,710 gas stations in the United States; Forbes claims only one location--although his wife did open up a gift shop adjacent to his 5&10 store.

That's right; Forbes is the proprietor of the West Concord 5&10, located in a quaint Boston suburb. It's the same store his father bought back in 1951. The shelves are piled high with an eclectic collection of merchandise, ranging from margarita glasses to argyle socks, from doorbells to screwdrivers. "Do you have eye patches?" one woman asks. Of course. "And I'll bet you want bandannas," Forbes adds. She does. How does he know? "What else would you need for a pirate costume?" he says. Another customer asks if Forbes has denim patches. "If you don't like the ones we have," he offers, "you can always cut up an older pair of jeans." The woman shakes her head. "I can't believe I didn't think of that myself," she says.

Indeed, what Forbes really sells is problem solving, as regular customers like Robert Galford know. Galford, a consultant, is the one who brought Forbes to the attention of Mobil, which owns the country's second-largest chain of convenience stores. Because household staples offer better gross margins than gasoline, Mobil is naturally looking at them as a way to pump up sales.

Toward that end, the company unveiled its new On the Run franchise in October, which it describes as "brighter, bigger, bolder convenience stores." John Loughman, who operates the first such franchise in Massachusetts, reports that revenues have nearly doubled since he tore down his repair garage to make the change. Mobil wants to help other franchisees replicate that success. "Very big companies don't know a goddamn thing about customer service," notes retail guru Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus Group. "They know about financing and delivering goods, but they haven't the faintest clue of what it is to wait on a customer. To go to a mom-and-pop store is smart."

Actually, Mobil had Galford arrange an interview with Forbes--covering such subjects as managing seasonal inventory and training salespeople--and then showed a videotape of the session to its executives. The viewers "clearly recognized the themes Forbes was talking about and saw the applicability for any level of service enterprise," says Galford, a principal of Impact Planning Group, based in Old Greenwich, Conn. Beyond offering management tips, Forbes stressed the need to create a business rooted in the community. "One of the comments we heard time and time again from Forbes's customers was 'I knew they'd have it here," Galford notes.

No matter how hard they try, though, it's unlikely Mobil's managers will be able to duplicate Forbes's high-energy customer service. "I know this is an odd time of year to ask for this," says one customer as she enters the 5&10 on a frigid day. "But do you have any fly-swatters?"

"Purple, orange, or yellow?" Forbes replies.

Resources: For more curmudgeonly advice from Stanley Marcus on retailing, check out his book, The Viewpoints of Stanley Marcus: A 10-Year Perspective ( University of North Texas Press, 800-826-8911, 1995, $24.95). Marcus speaks with authority and candor. The chapters most relevant to retail service are "The Lost Art of Salesmanship," "Why Service Is Often So Bad," "My Father's Standards," "Another Good Lesson in Retailing," and "Think Like a Customer."

IMPACT PLANNING GROUP, Robert Galford, 53 Forest Ave., Old Greenwich, CT 06870; 508-371-1893 18

JOHN LOUGHMAN, Northampton on the Run Mobil, 300 King St., Northampton, MA 01060; 413-586-2940 18

MOBIL, 3225 Gallows Rd., Fairfax, VA 22037; 18

WEST CONCORD 5&10, Maynard Forbes, 106 Commonwealth Ave., West Concord, MA 01742; 508-369-9011 18