Monday, October 17, 2011

I Learned Customer Service from a CEO

There are some people around the web who seem determined to shoot down the customer service community that has taken root here, and one of the things they say is that the people who take part in the discussions and chats don't understand business. Well, I don't understand the kind of business that thinks it's ok to refer to "dumb customers" but that's another story.

I began my customer service education when I was in high school, working part time at a business a few miles from where I grew up. After about a year, I was promoted into the customer service desk, which was seen as a desirable place to work and as a steppingstone to management. This was not a tiny "mom & pop" store; it was a business that was doing over $50 million a year--in the late 1960's.

The CEO of this private corporation was only in his mid-twenties, and had grown up in this business. His father had started him off in the operation where I worked, and ran 5 other, slightly smaller operations himself. The son, "Tommy," and the people he hired gave me a  great education in customer service. We often worked side-by-side doing what we did best: serving customers. Here are a few of the things Tommy taught me:

  • It doesn't matter what your title is; when a customer needs assistance, you assist them.
  • Your employees need to know that you "have their backs" - Tommy never, ever dressed down an employee in front of customers or other employees; he saved his comments for private conversations that were more teaching than "getting yelled at."
  • No job in the business is too "low" for you do do, and it's a really good idea if you know how to do them, or at least how they are done.
  • Even when something happens that indicates that a customer is completely wrong, you treat them with respect. You do your best to come up with a solution on the spot. If you can't, you can escalate it all the way up the chain to the CEO, and be there when the CEO interacts with the customer, so that you can learn.
  • Employees are always held accountable for mistakes, because the ultimate goal is excellence.
  • Without customers, there isn't a business. Every aspect of your operation needs to reflect respect for customers and to go the extra mile to serve them.
  • Know exactly what to do in case of natural disaster or unexpected events, and always put the safety of your customers first.
  • Hire good workers who share your values. The managers Tommy hired either reflected these customer-focused beliefs or learned to, or they didn't last. 
I worked for Tommy for several years, both at the customer service desk and as a manager with responsibility for my own department's profit margins, before moving off into a different business, and I've never forgotten those early lessons, nor the CEO I learned them from. And, by the way, that operation was the most successful and profitable of its kind in North America at that time. (It is still running, by the way.) People traveled for miles, bypassing many alternatives, to do business there, because the goods, layout, selection, technology and people all were put together with the customer in mind. Thank you, Tommy.

Where did you learn about customer service? Who was your mentor?

Give it some thought.


  1. Roy - Well done! As usual your insights are right on target.

  2. Thank you, Lisa. It was a great education, and I'm lucky to have had it.

  3. Roy

    Best post I've read in a while and I could not agree more.

    There are companies like Zappos who live the values you describe in the retail space and some like Gore who live them internally - oh and they happen to pretty darn successful.

    We (anyone in any organization) only exist to serve those who make our existence possible. Respect, values, and good manners never go out of style.

    Neither does class or valuing diversity of opinions. Don't let the buggers get you down.


  4. Thanks , Larry. It was a fantastic education and it had a huge influence me.