Service you can count on

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When the call came from Russell Vernon requesting a customer service training program for his employees, Connie J. Young’s response was, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Although Young had been running professional development programs for local and national companies for more than 10 years, she was caught off guard when Vernon, founder and chairman of West Point Market, called.

“Who gives more service than West Point Market?” says Young, president and owner of CJ Young & Associates. “Those guys are the friendliest people in town.”

But after a short deliberation, Young realized the market’s reputation of having the friendliest people in town is the direct result of an employer who values customer service training.

“Sometimes I get called in after some incident has happened — some customer sued the company or they have employees who are bickering — and then they’ll call me in to do customer service training,” she says. “Normally, by that time, it’s a little late. For some reason, companies don’t think about customer service until a little later, and they need to think about it first.”

West Point Market is just one example of a business whose reputation hinges on the service it gives. While it’s certainly not the only company in town which offers great customer service, there are far more company owners who say they have exceptional service than who have actually earned the reputation for it.

Start with your front line

Vernon, who took over the day-to-day operations of West Point Market from his father last fall, says the market’s service counter employees set the example for everyone else. For those positions, his human resources director seeks out applicants who enjoy interacting with people.

“We have a very intense environment here,” admits Vernon, CEO. “Customers and employees are face to face all day long. There’s a lot of potential there for things to go wrong.”

West Point Market employs 170 people, most of whom hold positions that require customer interaction. On a typical Saturday, Vernon says 100 to 120 people are working in the store.

The low employee-to-customer ratio not only means shoppers get immediate assistance, but they also get an immediate answer or resolution to any problem.

Employees know they don’t have to seek out a manager to get a problem resolved.

“We let them know, as far as the customer is concerned, there are no rules,” Vernon says. “We let them know, as long as you have the customer in mind, you’re going to be fine. They feel comfortable taking care of the customer right there — which is great.”

Young says too many employers focus on training and empowering their managers, but neglect their front-line employees.

“I do a lot of training with secretaries, because I believe secretaries are the heartbeat of the office,” Young says. “(Employers) will take a lot of time to hire a vice president or a manager of a department, but they take five minutes to hire a receptionist. I tell bosses, ‘Do you know that’s your biggest mistake? They’re the first contact anybody has with your company. They are on the front line.'”

Go the extra mile

Not every employee has the charisma to win over customers with their personality alone. But someone on every staff should know how to schmooze.

At the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn, restaurant manager Paul Cincotta not only knows all of his regular customers’ names, he also knows their favorite soups.

“We have a lot of customers that really like our soups,” says Hilton General Manager Timothy Winter. “So when someone expresses a liking for a certain soup, Paul will ask them if they’d like to be on the soup list. He takes down what soup they like, and when the chef is running that soup, he calls those people and they come in for lunch that day.”

Cincotta also gives out his e-mail address to traveling guests so their breakfast orders will be waiting for them the morning after they arrive. And he’s been known to win over some of the regular ladies-who-lunch with affectionate nicknames like Gorgeous and Beautiful.

Cincotta’s go-the-extra-mile attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed within the Hilton organization. He was recently chosen out of 71,000 Hilton employees as the company’s Team Member of the Year.

“It’s great for business,” Winter says of Cincotta’s efforts. “He fills up our dining room every day. … He has really built up a nice clientele for us.”

Shirley Matz may not share Cincotta’s style, but still has earned a reputation for providing personal attention to customers. Matz, who owns Matz Bookkeeping Services in Akron, started her career as Raymond Firestone’s personal bookkeeper. She founded her own company eight years ago and still pays personal attention to each one of her clients, even if they are assigned to someone else on her staff.

“At least once a month or so, depending on their needs, I will talk directly with each client, even if I am not doing the work,” she says.

She is updated on each client’s business through regular staff meetings.

“Plus,” she adds, “the clients know that my door is always open.”

Matz, who still counts the Firestone family among her clients, is not limited by the typical job description of a bookkeeper. She takes the time to brainstorm with her clients on “ideas, people and places,” she says, that will help them promote their businesses. She has also earned a reputation for promoting her clients’ businesses outside the office.

“If I run into someone who could use their services, I’ll pass their name along,” she says.

Hire the right people

Rick Vernon says great customer service starts well before training. You have to hire the right people, he says, then use training as a reinforcement tool.

“It happens way before training,” he says. “Our philosophy is, if you don’t hire the right people in the first place, you’re not going to have that level of customer service.”

While not many single-location retailers have a human resources department, Vernon says his HR director and assistant are critical to the business.

We look for people who fit our culture,” Vernon says. “It takes a little longer for us to find the right people, but once we do hire the right people, it’s a good base.”

He keeps his turnover low by offering flexible schedules, paying well and offering hours that don’t include Sundays or late evenings. Those things also help him overcome the problem of finding food service employees in a tight job market.

“We also have more of a laid-back kind of culture,” he says.

In addition, many employees want to work at the West Point Market to learn about the culinary arts.

“We get a lot of people who want to work here,” he says. “We do things differently than most other stores. There’s nowhere else in Akron you can learn from a CIA-trained chef how to prepare chateaubriand.”

Cincotta knows the difficulties involved in recruiting and retaining employees in the food service industry. One of the things he has done, at no cost to the hotel, is set up a trade with a local dry cleaner so his staff members do not have to pay to have their uniforms cleaned. And he saves all of the gratuities he receives throughout the year to use as incentives to get employees to work on holidays.

“Consequently, he never has a problem covering shifts,” says Winter. “The staff really appreciates his generosity.” How to reach: West Point Market, (330) 864-2151; CJ Young & Associates, (330) 867-8562; Hilton Akron/Fairlawn, (330) 867-5000; Matz Bookkeeping Services, (330) 877-4180