Saturday, February 5, 2011

Excellent Customer Service

I’ve been an examiner for a fairly well known quality award, the Texas Award for Performance Excellence by the Quality Texas Foundation.  It is a Texas version of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. I also worked for a dozen years in the planning and research group for a major professional association. I’ve had a lot of experience trying to understand quality and what it means to deliver excellent customer service. I have decided that the thing that makes the “best in class” better than everybody else is the willingness to go beyond the expected.

I received an interesting letter in the mail today. It was from Ellis and Salazar, the body shop that repaired my car last year after I ran into a deer while driving home from work. I was not sure what to expect when I saw the letter in the mailbox. The letter turned out to be a reminder that the warranty period was about to expire. They were writing to ask me to go over my car thoroughly and to make sure that I was still satisfied with the work that they had done, and they were asking me to bring the car in if there were any unresolved issues. That was a surprise.

If you have ever been in a car accident of any type, then you know that getting a car repaired is not a pleasant experience. It starts bad, and it gets worse. You probably have heard the stories. Finding something to drive while your car is in the shop is a hassle. The shop is not able to do the work for what the insurance company will pay. It takes longer than promised. The paint does not match. The new windows leak. The list goes on and on.

I picked Ellis and Salazar because they were on my insurer’s list and because they had done satisfactory work for people I know. As I write this, there are 16 reviews on and they have a good rating. That is probably a difficult accomplishment because most customers at a repair shop of any kind are already not happy with their situations. Taking a car to a body shop is not nearly as much fun as going to an ice cream shop. It is a challenge to provide customer value in this type of situation. It does not take much to push an already unhappy person into the category of very unhappy customer.

So what’s with the letter? I vaguely remember something about a warranty. I think it is probably going beyond what body shop customers expect to write a letter encouraging them to go over their cars and look for problems. Most people probably want to forget their accident and everything that went along with it. That includes the warranty. If something comes loose or the paint peels, most people figure that is just part of the game. This sort of follow up is not common. When I shop for goods or services, I expect things to work and for services to be performed as promised. I consider these things to be the minimum that a business should do.

Unfortunately, most businesses seem to be happy with the minimum. Maybe their customers don’t care. I do care, and I do business with firms that don’t do the minimum. Ellis and Salazar finished the job when they said they would, and my Prius looked like new. I expected that. Now a year later, they have taken the time to check on me. I did not expect that. I hope I never need body work done on a car again, but if I do, then I will take my car to Ellis and Salazar.

So what is the point? Am I simply writing an endorsement for a body shop? No. I’m trying to illustrate that excellent customer service is as simple as doing the expected and then just a little more. It does not even have to cost much. The reminder letter I received cost less than a dollar to mail, and it is probably done automatically. Even so, it made me feel important as a customer. That is willingness to go the extra step, and that is excellent customer service.

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