It all starts with service

As a writer of these kinds of columns, one gets to talk to a lot of home improvement retailers. There isn’t one that I can remember—from the smallest to the largest—that didn’t put a heavy emphasis on the art of customer service.

One of the reasons for the preponderance of customer service champions in our space is the nature of the business. It’s a lot harder to help a typical hardware store customer than just about any other kind of customer you can think of.

A guy walks into an ice cream shop. He orders chocolate chip, but then at the last second he switches to chocolate. That’s about as demanding as customer service gets in the ice cream shop.

But in a hardware store, the customer is more likely to test the upper limits of the store personnel’s training. He probably has a leak in his basement window where the wall is shaped like this (he contorts his hand into an unusual shape). Can you help him?

Of course you can help him. You’re a home improvement retailer.

(Note to ice cream retailers, please don’t ban me—I’m just making a point.)

Last month, Bernie Marcus held court for 18 minutes on “Squawk Box” with CNBC. Most observers described his performance as a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration’s approach to business, particularly small business. (See “Marcus on the Soap Box”) But after watching the tape, the highlight of the show, in my opinion, was Marcus’ references to the early days of his start-up, when everything was on the line, and Home Depot was just an idea.

Here’s what he said: “We shut the air conditioning off to save money, sweating like a pig and working. I remember my wife handing out dollar bills the next day when people came to the store. We worked our butts off.”

Mrs. Marcus was handing out dollar bills to customers. Now that’s service.

Earlier this year, Ace Hardware Co. was ranked highest in customer satisfaction for the fourth year in a row in the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 Home Improvement Retail Store Satisfaction Study.

It’s not easy to win any award four years in row. Now that’s service.

We asked Ace executives how they did it, and what they hope to keep doing.

So much of service depends on putting the right people in the right place of the organization. One of the best comments I’ve heard in this regard came from Stan Clark, the founder of world-famous Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater, Okla. He was talking about the importance of hiring the right people to achieve optimum customer service.

Here’s what he would say to all of his applicants: “If you’re too cool to work here, we don’t want you to work here.”

Turning away prospects because they’re cool. Now that’s service.

In planning this issue, which looks in several places at customer service, an e-mail hit my inbox from Dick Buck, the CEO of Genesee Reserve Supply in Rochester, N.Y.:

“We have signs that read, ‘Rule No. 1: The customer is always right. Rule No. 2: If the customer is ever wrong, see rule No. 1.’ Obviously, the customer isn’t always right, but we need to make sure that the employee has the proper attitude toward the customer and does everything within his or her power to satisfy them.

“As Henry Ford stated: ‘The only foundation of real business is SERVICE.’”

Everything within his or her power. That says it all.