Teaming Up for Customer Service

By Wim-Kees van Hout, Senior Vice President Scott Valley Bank, Oakland office

How good is your customer service? What do your customers experience when doing business with you?  Who actually IS your customer? If you are a business owner or manager, it is obvious to you who the customer is: it is whoever purchases your goods or services. Is it as obvious to all your employees?  Do THEY know who their customer is and understand the customers’ needs? You may be surprised to learn that not everyone in your organization thinks in the same way that you do about customers and providing customer service: not everyone has the overview and drive that you have when it comes to taking care of this all-important group of folks. For many business owners, being everything from the boss to the proverbial janitor closing the door at night rings true, as it is hard to instill in others the same sense of ownership and urgency that you have when it comes to making your business tick. Since many owners have had to run a tighter ship in recent years, it has actually led to many insights and improvements that might otherwise never have happened. Being close to the action has reinvigorated their drive to improve customer service, which in a tight economy can make you stand out from the crowd.

I recently had an unusual opportunity to observe and apply such business principles in a hands-on setting.  My daughter’s elementary school has, for years, raised money by allowing fans attending the local college football games to park their cars on its playground for a donation to the school’s PTA.  I was asked to take on the co-ordination of this fundraiser this year, and have enjoyed putting the whole venture on a business footing and sharpening my sales and customer service skills, realizing in the process how closely interwoven those two really are, even in such a simple activity as this.

First, I recruited seven leaders, one for each game, to be in charge on game days. Then I dug up all the contact details I could find for any prior years’ parkers and contacted them in early summer to alert them to a “season parking pass” opportunity with a built-in discount. I was careful to mention in each email what the purpose of the parking dollars was: support for the children’s education at this fabulous little public school. A third of the available spots were thus reserved and prepaid.  Then, at the first game, I made sure that I got an email address for drop-in parkers, as well as each of the additional 50 or so cars I turned away once our lot was full. I offered them added value for right that moment AND for the future: “Let me direct you to a lot that still has some space available, though it is further away, but give me your email address first so I can send you information on how to reserve with us for the remaining games this season”. Everyone on the email list then got an email about a week before each subsequent game as a reminder and, if they had not yet reserved, would they like to do so now? (“Parking fines are doubled on game days – better to have your dollars go to help schoolchildren’s education…”). After the games, I even emailed those who had reserved spots but who had not been checked off on our list of parkers – was everything ok? Did our volunteers just forget to check you off? People did not expect this at all – the response was very positive. Many talked about feeling a sense of community they were not expecting, and came back to park near the folks they met last time at that friendly school.

All our volunteers were asked to thank every driver coming through the gate for supporting the schoolchildren. I realized this was not natural for everyone – they actually had to learn to do this. Even more difficult turned out to be the request to get the email address from everyone parking AND everyone who had to be turned away: those in charge of their specific day did not think about future games and future sales, just today’s. One volunteer was seen to make a slashing motion at his throat from the yard to indicate to drivers cruising down the street that the lot was full. I had to sit him down and explain that each “slash” was an opportunity wasted – that same person is going to be in need of parking at the next game, and now we do not have his/her email address. Go out on the street, engage with people, and find out what they need, offer them a solution for now if you can, but at the very LEAST offer them a solution for their future need. “You can reserve a spot in advance and enjoy the game knowing your donation will help the children at this public school”. To further a sense of teamwork among the volunteers, I shared my personal dollar goal with all of them (which was some way north of the budgeted goal), sent updates of each game-day parking event and indicated our progress towards our overall goal as a team. The season is not quite over yet, but with two games to go, I am 100% confident that the higher goal will be achieved, and with smiles from parkers and volunteers alike.

Think about how this might apply to your business:

  1. Do you cater to your clients’ needs now AND in the future? Are your employees just as focused on finding out and meeting those needs as you are?
  2. Have you taken the time to understand your clients’ realities and their world? The benefits of doing so are many, but at the very least this allows you to anticipate their needs and allows you to help them navigate important events, be they positive (that large order they got) or negative (which paradoxically could also be that large order they got!).
  3. It also really pays to take a step back and imagine yourself in the shoes of your customers, to understand THEIR experience with your company and you. For instance: do you speak “technicalese” instead of plain English? 
  4. Note that a complaint is an opportunity in disguise - think of a complaint as an opportunity to excel, to shine, to show your client what customer service really means. Few expect you to be 100% error-free – but how you respond and fix errors makes all the difference in the world. 
  5. Finally, is there a way you can build community among your clients? Are they in such similar worlds that they might benefit from you introducing them to each other? Or can you create a feeling of community by organizing one or more events each year or each quarter that brings your clients together?

And if you are looking for parking for an East Bay college football game – contact me!


View Scott Valley Bank - The Vault - December 2012