May I Help You?

Serve Your Customers across All of Your Channels and All of the Phases of Their Lifecycles

September 2, 2004

Customers want your HELP on every channel through which they interact with you—the touchpoints like the Web, call center, and store—as well as the partners that market, resell, and support the products that you build. Customers want and need your HELP at every phase of their lifecycles—to learn about your products proactively or reactively, buy them, use them, and fix them, as well as to mange their relationships with you. When we say customer service, we mean simply delivering a customer experience that helps your customers do business with you.


This story is true. My father, Herman Kramer, owned and ran a paint and wallpaper store, Kramer’s Paint. He took over the store in 1955 from his father, Henry Kramer, who opened the business in 1911. (This small-town business fell victim to the discount outlets and shopping malls that cropped up on our highways in the 1960s. My father closed down the store in 1980. I pursued an alternative career.) I, of course, began working in the store at a young age, maybe eight or ten.

Back Office

At first, I spent a long time working in “the back,” doing chores like cleaning, running errands, and stocking shelves. I learned how the store worked, how the stock was organized, what the products did, and how customers should use them. I learned some through discussions with my dad, but I learned mostly by watching him, especially how he dealt with customers.

Telephone Service

My first direct contact with customers was on the telephone. My father taught me to answer every call within a couple of rings (This was way before voice mail and automated attendants) and to state cheerily, “Good morning (afternoon, evening), Kramer’s. How may I help you?” Callers asked the following questions:

* What hours are you open?

* Do you carry a particular brand or a type of product?

* Do you have a particular quantity of a particular color of a particular brand of paint in stock? (We carried Dutch Boy and Peerless brands.)

* Has my (special) order arrived?

(These questions sound familiar, don’t they? Technology has changed, but basic customer needs haven’t.)

I was very nervous at first, fearing questions that I couldn’t answer or a voice or accent that I couldn’t understand. I wanted to help the customers, but I also wanted to please my dad. I found that I could answer all of these questions quickly and (I hope) accurately. But the telephone didn’t ring that often. Most of our customers preferred to do business in the store.

Face-to-Face with Customers

Then my father told me that I was ready for the big step: I could wait on customers. It wasn’t a direct step. First he taught me how to use the cash register and how to make change. (We accepted cash, checks, and payments on account. There were no credit cards.) Then he told me about special customers. They were professional painters to whom we gave a discount and for whom we managed accounts. Each painter has preferences about the type of paint he used, brushes, solvents, and related tools (drop cloths, scrapers, etc.). I liked dealing with painters the best. They were the friendliest. I knew them and they knew me. In today’s terms we had the strongest customer relationships with them.

Finally, he told me about how to treat customers--easy to explain, but not so easy to do. He told me to greet every customer--by name, if possible. He told me to make a little chit-chat, maybe comment about the weather. He told me never to discuss politics or religion. His most important teaching was always to say, “May I help you?” He also taught me that customers were always right, even if they weren’t. If a customer said that some paint was “not good” or “not right,” then we took back what was left and gave the customer a full refund.

Now, paint and wallpaper customers needed all sorts of help. They’re both pretty complex types of products that are difficult to select, require specialized tools and skills to use, and have some big issues in their application. Many of our customers needed help in some of these areas just for paint. (And wallpaper was much more complex.) Questions and problems included:

* Selection. Can you help me: pick a color (ready-mixed or custom); pick a type and application of paint (flat or gloss, latex or oil); determine the quantity (How much do I need?); determine the tools: type of brush and roller (bristle or nylon, short nap or long)?

* Pricing. How much does it cost? Can I have a discount?

* Payment. Can I put this on account? Even if I’m over my limit? Do you take checks?

* Availability. Is what I need in stock?

* Delivery. Can you drop it by my house before 5:00 p.m. today?

* Problems. The paint didn’t cover in one coat. The paint didn’t stick. The paint blistered.

* Returns. I didn’t use this gallon of (premixed) paint. Can I return it? (Yes)

* Account Management. My bill is wrong.

Invaluable Lessons Learned

So what’s the point of the story? You can probably see many good points. Here’s the key. My father didn’t use today’s business terminology, but he taught me many lessons that apply today. Herman Kramer helped his customers the way that you should help yours, including...

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