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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

How Far Would You Go for a Camel?

That depends on the camel.

Published: Monday, April 2, 2007 - 22:00

Recent department store sales figures in the Wall Street Journal are interesting and intriguing. Despite a slow economy in parts of the nation and frigid February weather in some states where several retailers experienced a decrease in sales, some high-priced retailers had exceptional results. What at these stores provided the impetus for better than expected sales?

In February,  Saks Fifth Avenue had an astounding sales increase of 26.5 percent.  Following that mind-boggling number were Nordstrom with a 9.5-percent increase and Neiman Marcus with a 8.2-percent increase. Coupled with a 1.6-percent increase at J.C. Penny and a 7.8-percent dive at Dillard’s, the numbers posted by the high-end merchants are simply amazing.

Upscale department stores have learned that exceptional customer service is the key to increased sales. Personnel at these stores keep detailed records of customers’ purchases and do extensive follow-up to attract these customers back into the store at a later date. It’s these personal contacts that assure the stores of continued business. Let me give you a first-hand example.

My wife, Mary, and I traveled to Chicago last year to celebrate my March birthday.  While roaming the Magnificent Mile (a.k.a. North Michigan Avenue) we entered the Mecca of shopping emporia—Neiman Marcus. I, of course, made a one-time “It’s my birthday, so I should treat myself!” purchase that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be on my shopping radar screen. It was expensive, not critical to my survival and totally satisfying.  Naomi, the sales person, was a delight—courteous, informative and professional, and she treated us like potentates.

Fast forward one year to March 2007.  Returning home from a day trip, we discovered a message on our voice mail from Naomi. In an upbeat, friendly voice she mentioned that it was again my birthday month and was wondering if I were interested in some special items that were now on sale. Those items of course were the same ones I had purchased a year earlier.  My return call to Naomi had me making another purchase, especially when free delivery was part of the transaction. 

How many stores have a similar routine? Perhaps not those in the lower price tier, as suggested by the sales results for February. 

As an aside to this practice, I was recently at a national department store that had just purchased another national chain. After a purchase, I asked the salesperson about their policy of customer follow-up. Much to my surprise, the salesperson indicated that prior to the buyout phone calls to customers were a matter of policy. After the merger, this practice was curtailed and only customers within the local area code of the store were to be called. At this particular store, we’re outside the limits of their area code, so any chance for a follow-up call extolling the benefits of returning for another purchase doesn’t exist. Does the phrase “myopic management” come to mind?

That segues me to the title of this rant, “How far would you go for a camel?” You baby boomers perhaps recall the Camel cigarette advertising slogan, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” Let’s expand on that and ask the question, “How far would you drive for exemplary customer service?” For me to be greeted by name, offered extraordinary service with a pleasant smile, and then to experience some type of follow-up after the sale, there are no travel limits. In fact, even if a competitor has the same product or service at a lower price, I may opt to pay more at a more distant store because the service is exceptional.

One success in my quest for superlative customer service is a dry cleaner I frequent. There are closer cleaners and some with lower prices, but none compare with the over-the-top customer service I receive at Trella Cleaners in my hometown of Lake Orion, Michigan. The staff knows my cleaning preferences and inscribes my phone number on the receipt from memory. They even call when the cleaning is complete, and they offer free delivery. They are the Neiman Marcus of the dry cleaning industry.

How do these establishments infuse and ingrain superlative customer service habits in their staff? There used to be an axiom that stated, “Treat customers the way you wish to be treated.” Using that mindset in my opinion will invite disaster. There are actually people who  couldn’t care less how they are treated in a service transaction. Having these same people now wait on the general public with that attitude would be a mistake. On the contrary, I would inform my staff that everyone who walks into our hallowed halls is a shareholder or owner and everyone’s job depends on how these owners are treated. That ramps up customer service!

Let’s not forget about the training aspect of customer service. The staff should be properly coached in the proper procedures and yet be empowered to make decisions on their own without management intervention. The best customer service establishments follow this line of thinking. While we’re on the subject of training, kudos and congratulations to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. for being named the No. 1 company by Training magazine in its “Training Top 125” 2007 survey.  When it comes to employee empowerment, each Ritz-Carlton staff member is authorized to spend $2,000 daily to correct any oversights in customer service.

Well, it’s time to go. Trella Cleaners just called and the very expensive shirt I bought from my Chicago Neiman Marcus trip is ready for pickup. On second thought, I think I’ll call back and have them deliver it to my home and on the way have them pick up a pizza.  Now that’s customer service!

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About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semi-retired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.