Creating legendary customer service: Keep 'guests' coming back by making them feel at home

Aug. 1, 2005

I walked into a suburban Minneapolis store one day to find one of our young salesmen in a heated argument with a middle-aged customer. I stepped in and offered the older guy a cup of coffee. We sat down and I asked what I could do to make things right. He told me his car was late, and then confided that his doctor had just diagnosed him with terminal cancer. I told him how sorry I was, that of course I understood why he was upset. Fifteen minutes later, his car was good to go and he left satisfied.

Too many times there's a good reason for patrons -- like the poor soul above -- to be on edge. Regardless of customer behavior, we banned our people from acting disrespectfully. No exceptions -- that young salesman never battled another Tires Plus guest. If I found an employee fuming over a testy customer, I'd ask, "Ever have a day when everything went wrong and a minor incident set you off? Maybe the customer's child is sick or he's going through a divorce. If you're calm and caring and ask how you can help, he'll probably apologize when he snaps out of it. So don't take it personally and return fire."

Tires Plus' customer service was legendary. I asked our people to add a touch of volunteerism to the job, to try to make each customer's day a little brighter. If we concentrated first on kindness and empathy, I said, healthy profits would naturally follow (as long as our prices and costs were in line).

Why gun for "legendary" customer service? Here are three reasons.

1. It keeps 'em coming back. Seat-of-the-pantsers spare no expense to get new customers in the door, yet often fail to provide a why-go-anywhere-else experience. Huge mistake. Customers are like spouses -- take them for granted and they may go elsewhere to get their needs met. It's a vicious circle -- businesses pour more and more resources into unearthing new customers to replace the ones lost to neglect. This ain't rocket science, folks. Showering attention on customers already in the fold keeps them in the fold, so your new customers become add-ons rather than replacements.


Take the time Pete Selleck, COO of Michelin Americas Small Tires, flew in to hammer out our partnership agreement. He asked for a store tour, so I showed him a few locations. At our Woodbury (Minn.) store, we introduced ourselves to a woman in the customer lounge and asked whether she had ever been to Tires Plus. "You bet," she said. "My husband and I actually fight over who gets to come here with the kids." Surprised, I asked why. "My goodness," she said. "I'm sitting here watching a movie, sipping your cappuccino, and my kids are playing with toys on a clean floor." Pete was blown away.

That's why smart companies focus less on trying to make unhappy customers happy and more on converting satisfied customers into "top box" apostles. What does that mean? Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which raced past competitors thanks to remarkable employee and customer loyalty, asks customers to rate its performance on a scale of one to five. The company grades itself solely by the number of customers who check the top box -- "completely satisfied" -- on the service questionnaire. Industry standards back up Enterprise's belief that "satisfied" just doesn't cut it. About 35% of "satisfied" customers will come back or recommend your business to others. Not bad. But a full 80% of customers who check "completely satisfied" will come back and tell their friends. (While the percentages may vary based on the industry, the principle remains the same.)

2. It pulls in new customers. Don't just satisfy customers. Astound them. Lay out the red carpet, and guests will rave to friends and family. That sends new customers to your doors and Web site -- at no additional cost. (Expect a dazzled customer to recommend you to two to three others.) On the other hand, one rude encounter with an employee can torpedo every future purchase from that customer, his family and friends -- and their family and friends. (Expect a peeved customer to complain to three to eight others.) Precious word-of-mouth buzz-two words: free advertising! -- is squandered whenever a customer has a less-than-excellent experience.

3. It's the right thing to do. Back in 1986, David Wagner, owner of Twin Cities-based Juut Salonspa, was surprised when a regular showed up without an appointment just two weeks after her previous visit. She wanted her hair styled, not cut, so David assumed she had an important social engagement. Luckily, he had an opening. "I was in a great mood and I was really on," he recalled. "I gave her a great scalp massage and shampoo, and then styled her hair. We laughed and joked and had a lot of fun. When she left, she gave me a big hug that lasted just a little longer than usual." Two days later, David got a letter from her. He started reading, and froze. She explained that she had planned to commit suicide that day, and had come to the salon to get her hair styled so it would look good for her funeral. She changed her mind during the appointment because David had helped her realize life was worth living. She went home, confessed her plans to her sister, and agreed to check into a hospital.

David was stunned. "If you had lined up a hundred of my clients and asked me to choose the one who was considering taking her own life, she would have been last," he said. "She was gregarious, outgoing, and successful. I had no idea she was in such a dark place." David was grateful he had made a difference, and humbled by the experience. "I wondered what would have happened had I been upset or distracted when she came in and had just gone through the motions," he said. Something powerful shifted that day. David began feeling an enormous sense of responsibility. He wondered how many of his 15-odd clients each day were in crisis, and desperate for extra kindness and special attention. "I resolved then and there to treat every customer like I had treated my suicidal client," he said. David kept his promise, and wrote a best-selling book, "Life as a Daymaker: How to Change the World Simply by Making Someone's Day."


Here are six ways to win legendary customer loyalty.

1. Hire the right people and train them well. We showed everyone involved in hiring how to spot applicants who loved helping people and making their day. But that was only the beginning. Good employees also need training and inspiration. We enrolled new hires in a weeklong orientation where, among other things, I spelled out our mission -- "Deliver caring, world-class service to our guests, our community, and to each other." The focus of countless meetings, talks, and training sessions, as well as big chunks of our employee playbook, dealt with how to treat our guests (we called them "guests" to inspire the kind of service you'd find at a fine hotel). You can't inspire day-making service through occasional pep talks, memos and meetings. It's gotta be walked, talked, and lived -- day in and day out.

2. Treat employees right. If you leapfrog your people and focus chiefly on pleasing customers, you'll wind up with unhappy customers. Connect the dots, folks. Do you really expect employees who feel unappreciated to welcome customers with a big smile and a genuine desire to give them a positive impression of your company? Honor your people, concern yourself with their well-being, and respond to their grievances like they were customers. You'll be rewarded with invigorated, loyal employees who set new standards for performance and customer care.

3. Establish clear policies. No matter how attentive, bright and spontaneous your people are, customer service should be as scripted as a political stump speech. Improvisation leaves too much to chance -- even virtuosos rely on sheet music. In our business, guidelines were essential at three customer-care stages: initial contact, warranty service and customer complaints.

4. Solicit and act on feedback. Create as many comment channels as possible. You can't get better without knowing what your customers think. For one firm, that may mean comment cards and follow-up phone calls. For another, it may be Web blogs. Dedicated complaint hotlines appeal to certain demographics. Some companies retain an outside service to conduct customer surveys, something Tires Plus did regularly. We also contracted a "mystery shopper" service -- for both in-store and phone interactions -- to get an objective, in-depth look at quality control.

Gathering information is pointless, of course, unless you act on it. We tweaked our store protocols all the time based on customer feedback. Every negative comment about an employee was routed to his manager's in-box (and cc'd to his district manager) so the offender could be coached back on track. When possible, we told customers about the fixes they inspired -- and asked what we could do to win them back. If they said there was nothing we could do, we told them we understood because we had broken our promise. We also told them we hoped they were treated well by their new merchant because that's what they deserved. Our goodwill shocked some people and often turned them around. But that's not why we did it. It was a simple matter of decency.


5. Walk your talk. Leaders give a lot of lip service to their commitment to customer service. Are you among the few who follow through? When you hear of a complaint, do you shake your head and joke about the customer being an odd duck? Or, do you urge your people to look at the situation through the customer's eyes and do what it takes to make her happy? Do you shout, "You gave away WHAT?" Or, do you say, "Good for you, you remembered our values and did the right thing." Great customer service will wither on the vine without the support of upper management. "One of the things that always made me feel good about working for Tires Plus," said Regional Manager Brad Burley, "is the comments I got from friends and neighbors about how well they were taken care of in our stores. That all-consuming focus on customer service started with Tom. If he hadn't been so passionate about it, we wouldn't have carried that message first to our people and then on to our customers."

6. Measure and reward performance. We had a customer satisfaction metric called GEI (Guest Enthusiasm Index). Applied to individual stores and the company as a whole, it quantified the percentage of customers who would recommend us to friends. Below-average stores were targeted for extra coaching. It took a lot of sweat to push up our GEI one percentage point. Darrel Blomberg, our full-time guest enthusiasm coach (that's not a joke title), labored two-and-a-half years to move it from 92.0 to 98.2. Personnel knew every smile counted -- their compensation was partially based on a mix of store, district, region and company-wide GEI.

Don't forget non-financial rewards like public ego stroking. Throughout the year, we'd receive a number of unsolicited customer letters praising employees who had been especially helpful. We printed those employees' names in our year-end holiday party program, and prominently displayed the letters. During the party, these customer service all-stars basked in a well-deserved round of applause.

Establish clear policies, then follow the script

"In our business, guidelines were essential at three customer-care stages," says Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores. In his new book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," he shares his "scripts" for each stage.

1. Initial contact. Guests were greeted with WHENS -- Welcome, Handshake, Eye contact, Name, Smile. We then asked a series of questions to identify their needs. If appropriate, the salesperson walked outside with the customer to examine tire tread. He'd offer a solution, write up a work order, and invite the customer to relax in our lounge until their car was ready. Staffers also fielded phone calls according to a protocol I established in the early '80s: "It's a great day at Tires Plus. This is Jim. How can I help you?"

2. Warranty service. Salespeople were trained to welcome returning, non-revenue-producing guests like they were new customers. The reason should be obvious -- customers prefer to go steady rather than have a one-night stand. That means coddling. We had scripts prepared for every eventuality -- fixing faulty repairs, replacing defective warranted parts, servicing prepaid maintenance programs.

3. Customer complaints. We welcomed them. No, seriously. They were opportunities to demonstrate we cared about our customers. We even deep-sixed the word "complaint" and replaced it with "guest opportunity." It's said that the value of a person's character is measured by how one deals with adversity. That's also true of the value of a company's character. Employees at every level need the authority to do whatever it takes to satisfy unhappy customers. Give guests the benefit of the doubt if there's so much as a sliver of gray. Does it work? You bet. Just as a broken bone comes back even stronger, we often scored more points by appeasing an upset customer than if the issue had been handled cleanly in the first place.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company to Bridgestone/Firestone in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue. He was named MTD's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( in 2000 to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the home page. Gegax can be reached at [email protected] or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).
About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.