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'Move heaven and earth to serve your customers': LESSONS LEARNED

June 30, 2008

When the late Joe O'Malia ran a small Broad Ripple grocery store in the 1950s, customers occasionally would request items the store didn't carry. Instead of turning them away, he gave his son Danny a fistful of change and an unusual order.

"He would say, 'Here's 18 cents, go run down to Kroger'" and get it there, Danny O'Malia recalled. "He was taking care of [the customer] even though I had to work a little harder, and he had to work harder."

Shoppers were impressed and other employees took notice. Soon, the store developed a reputation for quality service, all because it followed the principle: Move heaven and earth to serve your customers.

It's a lesson O'Malia, 60, learned time and again from watching his father, who founded the O'Malia Food Markets chain in 1966. And it's one he preached himself when he ran the company from 1975 until 2001, when he sold it to Marsh Supermarkets.

"You have to build a culture of customer service," said O'Malia, now chief customer service officer with the Indianapolis-based training firm Trustpointe. "If the customer believes you care about them, then ... they're going to stay a customer most likely unless you mess something up."

To deliver that kind of service, though, he said employees need to have the freedom to solve problems on their own. That means managers should support staffers by allowing them to step beyond their regular duties to impress a customer.

O'Malia points to Southwest Airlines as an example of a company that trusts its employees to create happy customers.

When air travel came to a standstill in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Southwest's passengers and crews were stranded in airports and hotels around the country. But that didn't stop the airline's pilots and flight attendants from doing something special for travelers, O'Malia said.

"They took the stranded passengers bowling and to movies on their own credit cards without asking Southwest Airlines headquarters for permission," he said. "They were empowered to go that extra step to take care of the customer."

But world-class service doesn't develop overnight. It has to be taught, O'Malia said, by example and through continual training and re-training.

Incentives can help, too.

When O'Malia ran his family's chain of grocery stores, he put up a sign in the center of each store where he would post compliments from customers thanking a particular employee for their extra help.

The "kudos" poster, as it was called, helped to strengthen the customer-service culture, and it set off a competition between employees to offer better and better service.

"It just fed itself," O'Malia said. "More

and more people wanted to get their name up there and it just

caught fire."

Before long, customers

were calling in and specifically mentioning the "kudos" poster when they delivered their compliments.

That, O'Malia said, shows how exceptional customer service can create a winwin situation for both customers and employees. Customers appreciate it when employees bend over backwards to help, and employees enjoy the camaraderie of working together to improve service.

Over time, the exceptional service pays off, O'Malia said. His proof? His father's first store.

When Joe O'Malia got a request for one special item that a competing store wasn't offering, he spent a few days tracking it down, calling as many suppliers as he could. After finally locating the product, he called the customer to tell her it was ready.

She pulled up to the store, but this time, she brought a carload of friends with her. His service philosophy was spreading, and his store was gaining customers.

"The word of mouth when you go that extra step," he said, "is a big deal."



-Chip Cutter
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