Going Above and Beyond

Good customer service involves more than just setting high standards and being friendly with customers.

It’s no surprise that customer service is essential to a successful business. In this day and age, the ability to act upon the customer’s needs, wants, and concerns is crucial. As it turns out, some of the most successful businesses in America have taken this approach to a new level by placing the relationship between their customers and company at the center of their business strategy.

The Little Grocer That Could

Gary Hawkins, the fourth generation CEO of Green Hills Farms, a small family grocer in upstate New York, will tell you that the secret of success is working well with associates and customers. Started as a farm stand in 1934 by Gary’s great grandmother, Carrie Hawkins, Green Hills has always recognized the importance of exceptional customer service. The family owned farm stand grew to a full service supermarket with the leadership of four generations of the Hawkins family and help from the rest of the community. Customers, employees, and generations of families have stayed with Green Hills for years. “My grandfather knew all of his customers and exactly what they liked,” said Hawkins. “The customer service traditions that have been passed down since Green Hills was first started by my greatgrandmother is embedded in its culture. Having respect for other people and going above and beyond where you can is what defines Green Hills’ customer service.” Green Hills is currently in its 74th year in business, and Hawkins attributes that to its outstanding associates and terrific customers.

Customer Interaction is Key

Hawkins stresses that his associates are what makes the experience at Green Hills. “The culture we have here is what makes our customer service. Having respect for others and abiding by the ‘Golden Rule’ [do unto others as you would have done onto you] is something we take very seriously here,” he explained. The associates at Green Hills place respect at the top of their list when discussing customer service training. Hawkins earns respect from his associates by making Green Hills an exceptional place to work with its fair, flexible, and family-friendly atmosphere. This respect for Hawkins, the workplace, and fellow associates is carried through to interactions with the customers, making the atmosphere of Green Hills extraordinary. Hawkins receives many letters, calls, and e-mails to compliment Green Hills’ customer service. “Just the other day I had a voicemail from a woman who had been shopping in Green Hills and called to compliment us,” he said. “She wanted to compliment one of our high school associates who delivered prompt and friendly service upon checkout.”

Reward Customer Loyalty

Green Hills sets the standard when it comes to customer loyalty programs. In 1993, they were one of the first supermarkets to distribute loyalty cards to recognize and reward their frequent customers. Hawkins believes that his loyalty program is a big part of what keeps his customers dedicated to Green Hills. For the past 15 years, Green Hills has added more incentives to remain a loyal customer. Customers that join the loyalty program at Green Hills receive special savings, occasional markdowns on sales, as well as other extraordinary benefits. For example, this past winter, Green Hills closed their doors for a night to reward the top 400-500 customers in their loyalty program with an exclusive holiday party. “By rewarding those customers who are loyal to Green Hills, they benefit even greater by having access to exclusive rewards and savings, and we benefit from having such a dedicated customer base,” said Hawkins.

Personalize the experience

Hawkins has revolutionized the role of integrating a customer’s information into customer service. “Every Sunday in newspapers, there are tons of advertisements and flyers for local grocery stores,” he said. “Imagine if those ads were personalized to you with special prices and offers of brands and products you like to buy.” Green Hills has the technology to personalize promotions and sales to each individual loyal customer based on shopping history. Green Hills has recently launched a program, called SmartShop. Once registered, customers receive individual specials, based on purchase history, that are offered twice a week. SmartShop even allows users to create grocery lists electronically at home and pick the list up at the store.

Customer Focused Marketing

Hawkins knows the keys to successfully marketing products to customers, which he outlines in his book, Customer Intelligence. “Early works and learnings with the loyalty program paid off,” stated Hawkins, who has successfully set up another business, consulting with firms in the retail industry. He stresses that it is important for retailers to measure their customers’ behavior in order to deliver value to them. “Showing your customers that you value their business does not always have to be monetary, it could be a free cup of coffee or a special holiday party,” explained Hawkins. Green Hills exemplifies success in marketing products to its customers, such as their loyalty and SmartShop programs. The customers are what make Green Hills so successful, and Gary and his associates greatly value them. “Too many retailers only think of business in terms of their products and what they can sell. We have a strong customer focus.”

On the Right Path

Zappos, the online shoe retailer, is another company that maintains customer service as their top priority. Zappos began in 1999 with founder Nick Swinmurn’s desire to create the first major online shoe retail store. Swinmurn combined forces with current Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, and the rest is history. Zappos prides itself on being a “customer service company that happens to sell shoes, amongst other things.” The most important aspect of their customer service is to deliver WOW, according to Jane Judd, Senior Manager of the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team.

“At Zappos, our people have such passion to deliver the best customer service imaginable,” Judd said. “Everyone makes sure that we put service #1 on our priority list.” Zappos’ legendary customer service practices are what keeps them in business. With 365-day return and exchange policies and free shipping, Zappos truly delivers WOW to their customers.

Zappos also puts the customer first with their excellent dedication to listening to their customers’ feedback, questions, and complaints. From listening to their customers, Zappos is in the process of completely redesigning their website to be more customer-friendly. With a 72 percent return customer rate, Zappos has perfected putting the customer first.

Little Things Do Matter

Not only does Zappos deliver WOW through their service, but they also focus on the little things to complete the customer experience. Zappos calls their contact representatives “customer loyalty representatives” because they are dedicated to creating the emotional connection with customers at their contact center. “At Zappos, we don’t drive the metrics to our (customer loyalty) representatives. We want our representatives to spend time with the customers to understand their needs,” says Judd. For example, Zappos welcomes their (customer loyalty) representatives to stop conversations about shoes with customers to reach out and interact with their personal life. When Zappos knows one of their customers is buying shoes for a special day, such as a wedding, their customer loyalty representatives will send out personal cards to congratulate them. The company also has the number to their customer contact center on every single page of their website to make it easily accessible for customers.

Spreading the Word

Zappos has also greatly benefited from word-of-mouth marketing. “Zappos learned early on that by having a huge marketing focus, we could burn through money really fast,” said Judd. “Word-of-mouth marketing gains more customers because you hear about us through friends, families, and people who want to use Zappos again.” Zappos benefits so greatly from word-of-mouth marketing, because it allows them to use money they would have spent on marketing to pay for shipping for their customers.

Zappos also uses the Internet to create marketing buzz about their online retail store. Currently, Zappos has over 400 employees on Twitter, including CEO Hsieh who occasionally gives out a free pair of shoes. The company also has pages on the popular social networks Facebook and MySpace, which acquire friends, and where regular customers post testimonials.

“The Offer”

You might ask yourself, “How do Zappos associates put such an emphasis on customer service?” The answer is that Zappos has come up with a creative way to hire employees and ensure their dedication to customer service through their training program. Zappos’ recruiting staff asks potential employees questions based on culture fit that is similar to a speed dating format. One of the questions that Zappos’ recruiting staff asks is: “On a scale of 1-10, how weird to do you think you are?” This is to get a sense of how well the potential employee will fit into Zappos’ unique culture. Zappos Core Value #3 is to “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness.” Zappos believes that without having some fun and a little weirdness, there would be a lack of exciting work culture. Potential employees who answer either 1 (not weird) or 10 (very weird) will not be hired, but those who can say they are weird have a better chance of being hired. “A potential employee could be the best technical person for the position, but if they are not a culture fit they [Zappos recruiting staff] will not hire them,” explained Judd.

Once hired, new Zappos employees go through a vigorous two-week training process. After this training process, Zappos presents their newly hired employees, “The Offer.” Zappos offers them $2,000 to quit right there on the spot. “Our ‘Offer’ shows that we have committed people who want to stay with the company and have passion for our drive for customer service,” she said. Although only 1-2 percent do take “The Offer,” it shows that all of the Zappos employees are dedicated to customer service and committed to their culture. The fun begins as soon as employees are immersed in Zappos culture. From various team-building activities, to American Idol in the cafeteria during lunch, Zappos truly brings the passion for dedication to customers and fun into one extraordinary company.

Both Green Hills and Zappos are proof that by placing the relationships between customer and employees as an important part of their company culture, business has grown rapidly, with a steady, loyal customer base. Both businesses have learned that the relationships between associates and customers are the keys to success. By devoting time and money, and adding in dedicated employees that place customers first, you and your business can revolutionize customer service as well.

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