Small Business

Veteran grocer plays new role: O'Malia teaches customer service as training-firm VP

May 28, 2007

In the late 1950s, when Daniel O'Malia was a kid working in the first store his father owned, he would often keep busy weighing and bagging potatoes. But on occasion, a customer would ask for something the small grocery didn't stock.

Joe O'Malia would hand his son some change and tell him to run to a nearby Kroger grocery to pick up the item. He had the competitor's prices memorized and always gave his son the right amount.

"He would say: 'Make sure you run and get back here before she checks out,' " O'Malia remembers. "He'd always say the grocery business is all about giving the lady what she wants."

That's just one of the memories O'Malia shares when he tells how he learned about customer service and how he made it a top priority while running the O'Malia Food Markets chain from 1975 until the family sold to Marsh in 2001. His dad started the business with one store and 30 employees in 1966, eventually growing it to nine stores, a bakery and a headquarters office.

"It's hard to leave behind a business that still has your name on it," O'Malia said.

But now he's looking to pass on those same lessons to others as vice president and chief customer service officer at locally based sales-training firm Trust-Pointe Inc. He said it's a message any small business needs to hear if it wants to grow.

"There's just not a lot of good customer service out there," he said. "[At O'Malia's], we were always going to be the small guy. We just had to be as different as we could."

Lesson learned

One of his first tips for businesses is to hire the right people. In the 1980s, he devised a simple math test for applicants and asked managers to screen potential employees with it, not hiring anyone who got more than four wrong.

Managers pushed back a bit, afraid they wouldn't get enough new hires. O'Malia struck a bargain, saying a manager could hire people with five to seven wrong answers but that they had to track the two groups to see which employees worked out. The ones with the better test scores did.

He said companies now seem leery of being too picky about who they hire, but he thinks it's good to be selective. And being picky doesn't mean paying someone more than they're worth. O'Malia said money isn't the only thing that motivates a good employee. They'll settle for a competitive wage if they're also excited about and can buy into the company's vision.

"Employees are connecting with infinitely more customers," he said. "You've got to get the best."

Next, he said, the owner and managers must lead by example.

"They have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk," he said. "You have to instill a culture of customer service and show that the person in charge is committed to it."

For the grocery business, that meant parking faraway from the door when visiting a store, picking up any litter in the parking lot and jumping on a cash register when lines were long-even if there was a stack of paperwork waiting on the manager's desk.

Gathering plenty of customer feedback is another imperative, O'Malia said. This is one area where O'Malia was a bit of a fanatic when he took the grocery helm in 1975. He did everything. He walked the store talking to every customer he saw. He called customers who stopped shopping with the chain to see what had happened. He set up focus groups of loyal shoppers and an award system to highlight customer compliments.

And he personally handled customer complaints, letting employees know they could always send a call to his office.

"My dad said: 'Don't ever give that job to somebody whose name isn't O'Malia and who can't do anything about it,' " he remembers.

Even though good customer service seems hard to find these days, it's more important than ever to deliver it.

"It's not just the old saw anymore-please someone and they'll tell a neighbor. Provide poor customer service and they'll tell 10 neighbors," he said. With the Internet, they'll potentially tell millions.

He points to Web sites like www.starbucked.com, which was set up by a peeved Starbucks customer but has grown into a customer complaint forum that tracks the worst offenders.

Spreading the word

At his new post, O'Malia, 59, is drawing up the curriculum for customer service training, signing up clients and planning to start classes in July.

"I'm excited to spread the vision of O'Malia's customer service culture beyond O'Malia's," he said.

And he's happy to be back in a smallbusiness setting. TrustPointe Inc., located on the northeast side, has been around for 10 years but is still a small firm with five employees.

"I prefer a smaller locale," O'Malia said. "You have more personal contact with customers and co-workers."

Experts say customer-service training would be a good fit for many small businesses. Larry White, a counselor with the Indianapolis Small Business Development Center, said he's always encouraging clients to build relationships with customers.

"[Owners] get busy doing a lot of things, but what's more important than the customers paying the bills?" White asked. He said he always tells clients to encourage customers to voice complaints and to make sure to follow up.

In fact, he often uses an experience he had at an O'Malia's store as an example of good service.

White said he once left a suggestion in his local store's comment box and got a call from an O'Malia family member days later.

"That always stuck with me. It was impressive for one of the owners to call and acknowledge the suggestion," he said.
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