Serving the Customer is Key to Customer Service


One of my friends is a freelance graphic designer. He sometimes lands accounts that I know have been serviced by ad agencies or print shops forever.

“How did you get that gig with [redacted]? I thought [bloated ad agency] was doing their graphics work?”

“Simple,” he said with a shrug. “I returned their phone calls.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, once I had the project I kept them in the loop. Any time there was a bump in the road that would cause me to miss a deadline, I gave them a heads up. They were cool about it every time.”

Wow. Communication. Professionalism. Honesty. What a concept.

Among the business community it’s common knowledge that if you want to get out ahead of your competition, something as seemingly obvious as a swiftly returned phone call is a big head start. Can it be that simple? Based on my own experience, I’d say this knowledge is not all that common.


Could it be? This is the simple secret to great customer service?

As the homerunner, it’s my job to wrangle the various service people that are constantly summoned to get out here and keep our house from collapsing in a heap of clogged drains, peeling paint and molding hardwood. I may not be the most efficient handyman, but I’m smart enough to know when I’m in over my head. That usually occurs when I’m only in up to my ankles.

But you’d think that many of the plumbers, electricians, roofers and contractors in Missoula are so busy that they can afford to turn away work. I can’t count how many times I’ve called some outfit for one of the free estimates they advertise on the radio, only to twiddle my thumbs for days until my ears catch a competitor’s pitch interrupting my classic rock.

I’m not unreasonable. I’ll give them a day to get back to me. I’ve seen it from the other side, and believe me, I know an “instant quote” for a unique job is damn near impossible. Say somebody calls me up to hire my band for a wedding. If it’s the bride-to-be, said wedding is probably nine or ten months down the road. If it’s the groom, it’s next weekend. Regardless, there are certain variables I can determine in that first phone call. Where is the venue? How many guests? Will we have to play “Proud Mary” (a $250 surcharge)? Is the available power grid anything more than an extension cord running from an RV generator? If so, how do you feel about acoustic music?

You notice I don’t ask how long we’ll be playing or whether the band will be fed. The answers to those questions are always the same: Until you’ve had enough, and yes. That’s what a contract is for.

Once I’ve gathered all the salient information I can, I promise to answer with a quote and a green light within 24 hours. I will have to clear this date with my family and our calendar, then contact the other band members. They will then have to clear the date with their own families and their schedules, and get back to me. I can’t give the wedding planner a thumbs up unless I am dead sure we can commit. I’ll usually hear back within a few hours from the other players, because they understand the importance of a timely response.

If one of the guys hasn’t responded by the next day, I’ll find a possible replacement and call in the bid. I want these people to have a firm answer and one less thing to worry about for their wedding, like how they will keep the divorced parents of the groom from starting a brawl.

So when I call a roofing company and tell whoever answers the phone that we’re ready to drop ten large on a new roof, you’d think they might be interested in providing good customer service, starting right then. I went through that process last year, and one clown actually called me a full ten days later with his bid. As he was trying to assure me of his roofing expertise and generous warranty, I walked out the kitchen door into the back yard. I held the phone at arm’s length for a few seconds, then placed it back to my ear. “You hear that?”

He said he did.

“That’s the roofing company that got back to me with a bid the next day. They’re just finishing up.”  Click.

Another way to keep customers loyal once you have them is to simply communicate, as my designer friend said, even if it’s not pleasant news. My kids are involved in a school activity that requires dry-clean-only clothing. We’ve used the same establishment forever, even though another one has recently opened up closer to our home. It’s part loyalty, sure, but also part habit. A deer will stick to a game trail even if it’s not the shortest route from point A to your mom’s flower box.

So last spring, when the kids were getting ready for the state tournament, I stopped by the cleaners on my way home on a Thursday afternoon to pick up their rigs. “Oh,” said the girl at the front counter, after looking up my name. “That’s weird. Those went to our downtown location for some reason.”

I waited, but she did not add, “I’ll have somebody bring them here right away.” She just looked at me like a cow trying to understand Keynesian Economics.

“Why didn’t anybody call and let me know?” I said. “I just came from downtown.”

She shrugged. “Sorry. They’re open till 5:30.” No offer of a discount, no apparent understanding that she’d just thrown a large brick into the well-oiled machinery of my errands route. It was 5:10. She knew she had me by the short ‘n curlies.

So I drove back downtown, but I decided to cut the cord to that place and try the new one. You can approach customer service two ways: sit back and run the cash register and treat everyone who comes through your door as some kind of burden or interruption, or you can change your mindset to think about the customer’s needs. If you’re serving or selling to the general public, the reality is this: when you’re on the clock, the customer is the most important person you’ll deal with. Not the friend you’re texting or your co-worker who’s telling you the story about her roommate puking into a snow boot.

Do you want people to buy local? Continue to support your home-grown business? Don’t settle for lip service. Aim for good customer service. Believe me, we’ll be happy to bring you our business. And our money. And our friends.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.


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