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Extraordinary Customer Service
Customer loyalty is rewarded with a lifetime of service.

By Donald L. Dewar

 

A retired friend of mine was recently on the receiving end of an amazing customer service experience. A personal financial crisis forced him to engage in a rigorous cost-cutting campaign. One of his “cuts” was to eliminate a pest control service he had used for the past 20 years. By mail, he notified Woods Pest Control in Redding, California, to terminate the service. He also explained the reasons why this was necessary.

A few days later he received a telephone call from the technician who serviced his account. The technician acknowledged receipt of the letter and said he had discussed the situation with the company’s owner, David Harmon. The conversation continued as follows:

Woods: Mr. Harmon has instructed me to continue servicing your property.

My friend: You don’t understand. I can no longer afford it.

Woods: No problem. There’s no charge. If some time in the future things improve, you can start paying again.

My friend: I cannot afford to build up the debt that would accumulate while I’d be hoping for my finances to improve.

Woods: There won’t be any debt buildup. Until you can afford it, there will be no charge at all. It’ll be free.

My friend: That’s incredible! But if things don’t improve, how long would the service continue on a free basis?

Woods: As long as you live.

Needless to say, my friend was speechless. So was I. There had to be a story there. I made an appointment to meet with Harmon.

Harmon, 41, purchased the company in 1995. My interview brought a few surprises. One, his generosity toward my friend was not something new. He had already extended the same helping hand to a number of other hardship cases.

Another surprise was Harmon’s ability to discuss Six Sigma concepts with me. In fact, he had purchased Jack Welch’s book on that subject. Not bad for the owner of a small service company.

Harmon is very customer-oriented. He started our discussion by telling me the following: “Our customers are our lifeblood. They keep us going. Without customers it can’t be done. When we have a customer who’s been with us for many years, we know it has been difficult at times for them—but they stuck it out with us through thick and thin. So, when they have a crisis, we help them out. It’s only fair. It’s our way of thanking them for their loyalty to us.

“We have always been concerned about our customers—taking care of them. Six years ago, we were in a growth mode. Each technician had a full load of customers. On one hand, we prided ourselves on overall efficiency. On the other hand, our service cancellations were rising. I was assured by others in this business not to worry. ‘That’s normal,’ they said. But the cancellations bothered me. As far as I was concerned, we were in a service business—one that demanded good customer relations. So, I cut the customer load for each of our technicians by hiring additional technicians. Everyone was directed to be highly focused on the customer. With the reduced customer load, they had the time to do so. Our competitors are everywhere. We have to be good.”

The company started a top 10 program. Every month, each technician is required to identify a top 10 list of customers. Those that make the list may be customers with special pest problems or financial difficulties. “We lavish them with kindness and do everything to keep them happy,” said Harmon. Cancellation rates plummeted—to the lowest level ever. For Harmon it boiled down to a choice. Should he implement a selling campaign designed to bring in new customers and put up with higher-than-usual cancellation rates or put a greater emphasis on super customer care with its resultant low cancellation levels? For Harmon the latter has made far better business sense.

“We’re concerned if someone wants to cancel our service because they‘re unhappy with it for some reason,” Harmon said. We don’t want them to leave for any reason—especially if they’re upset with us. Our usual approach is to continue their service for two or three months at no charge with the goal of being able to correct the cause of their discontent. Then, even if they still go, they leave with a good feeling toward our company. They’ll know that we certainly gave it our best shot. At a minimum we will have lived up to our obligation of taking care of our responsibility toward them, and we want to part as friends.”

Harmon is as concerned with good relations with his employees as he is with his customers. He assured me that he isn’t the one who makes their customer and quality processes function smoothly. He gives that credit to the employees who rub shoulders with the customers on a regular basis. “I couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “They’re a bunch of sincere and hard-working people. We’re really blessed.”

I left the interview invigorated and inspired—convinced that the world needs more business leaders like David Harmon.

About the author

Donald L. Dewar is president of QCI International, a consulting, training and publishing organization (and publisher of Quality Digest). He is also the co-founder of the Association for Quality and Participation and the founding editor and publisher of Quality Digest and The Journal for Quality and Participation. Dewar is an American Society for Quality fellow and recipient of ASQ’s Distinguished Service Medal, the organization’s highest honor. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.