7 Golden Rules of Customer Service: Lessons from a Country Store
or, Lessons from “Miss Dot’s Grocery“
By: Davis M. Woodruff, PE, CMC
Management Methods, Inc., Decatur, AL
Tel: 256-355-3896; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Customer service was a priority in the old fashioned country store where customers could buy anything from chicken feed to meat to clothes to gasoline and customer service must be a top priority for successful businesses today. Our family owned and operated a country store in rural south Alabama (Rt. 1, Hayneville, AL). Seven (7) essential customer service lessons can be learned from this family operation known as “Miss Dot’s Grocery” that can be applied to retail, hospitality, service and other businesses today.
The Seven Golden Rules of Customer Service are:
- Be there when your customers need you
- Know your customers
- Never Let Your Business Systems Dictate How you do Business
- Treat your customers like they are important because they are
- Quality counts in the product and the service your provide
- Value is what the customer wants, not just price
- Appreciate your customers
These common sense customer service principles were drilled into me years ago in that original “C-store”— the Country Store. These principles or “golden rules,” while simple, were very clear to all of us working in that store, and later formed the foundation for my consulting work with companies in the convenience store and retail sectors. The “7 Golden Rules” are applicable to any business because every business has customers to serve.
To illustrate several of these lessons, l will begin with an example about a few specific customers we had. There were certain customers who bought only two items, corn and sugar. (Yes, some of you remember how these two raw materials were used.) These customers had certain times of day to make their purchases and it wasn’t during normal business hours. We knew the customers and their needs, so we were available when they needed to make purchases, even if it was late at night. This simple example illustrates several of the golden rules of customer service.
While these are timeless lessons, each lesson can be illustrated with actual events that occurred in our store operation. The reader will be able to draw analogies for today’s fast-paced society that can help them offer more personal and timely service to customers today that should translate into improved profitability.
#1: Be there when your customers need you.
The hours of operation of Miss Dot’s Grocery were from around sunrise to about an hour after dark, depending on the season of the year. Of course, these hours were adjusted somewhat on weekends. We generally stayed open later on Friday and Saturday evenings when folks were getting paid; and opened a bit later on Sunday mornings, usually around 7 a.m. Yes, we were open 7 days a week, everyday of the year.
Operating hours were flexible enough to be available for our customers. For example, many nights when I would be locking the doors, Dad would say, “don’t lock up yet, that car coming down the road may stop.” How does that relate today when in most retail establishments they begin making announcements that the store will be closing in 15 minutes or worse yet begin checking out the registers before closing time.
We would even open up late at night if a customer had a need. In fact, we had a few customers who usually bought only corn and sugar as mentioned earlier. These customers would come to our house late in the evening and Dad would say, “Son, go down and let them have what they need.” Now, do we have that same attitude of availability for our customers today?
When you consider your business, whatever it is, think first about your customers and when they need you as opposed to what hours you’d prefer to open. Heed the lesson. Be there when your customers need you, whatever your business happens to be.
#2: Know your customers.
In today’s high tech and impersonal society, it is essential that business owners and operators get to know their customers. Think about the situation mentioned above with our late night customers. We knew the customer, their needs and how to serve them. In other cases, we would know the needs that some customers had related to monthly cash flow. This need provided another business opportunity. Customers could bring their electric bills to us, we’d collect a number of them, write one check and then add the amount to their credit statement each month with a small service charge. Now, this is probably not too feasible today, but the point is very relevant. Customers like to be known and like to know that you will try to meet their needs.
Several times in our little store, we would learn of needs related to illnesses or deaths and would always send a grocery bag of food to these folks. It resulted in intense customer loyalty and goodwill in the community. What’s the lesson here? Knowledge of your customers coupled with actions that let them know you care can result in an improved bottom line for you due to customer loyalty and goodwill that is spread by your customers.
#3: Never Let Your Business Systems Dictate How You Do Business
Obviously, in a small country store we could not stock huge inventories of every item folks would need or want. However, we could get most anything someone needed or desired given a few days. Everyone in the community knew they could come in and request something and we’d attempt to get it. That’s just good business sense and practice.
Sometimes this took an unusual twist. On one occasion I remember a lady from the big city coming in and wanting to buy a pair of stockings. We quoted her the $1.25 price and she said she’d never wear something that cheap. No problem, we just reached into another box and gave her the same thing for $3.00 and she was a satisfied customer. Is this price gouging or dishonest? Well, I’m not real sure about that. The point is the customer was happy and we made the sale that made her happy. Perception is critical in most cases when it comes to satisfying customers.
Another example had to do with shoes. This one got my Dad into trouble at home. My Mother had come in from the big city (Montgomery, AL) with a new pair of shoes and set them on one of the store shelves. A customer came in and saw them. You guessed, it even though we didn’t stock shoes, they were sold to the customer!
In today’s high-tech bar coded inventory controlled world we probably couldn’t do something like that because “the computer wouldn’t let us.” That’s an excuse not a logical reason. The lasting lesson is never let your business systems dictate what you can do for your customers. Figure out what it takes and do it to have what your customers need if you want to be successful.
#4: Treat your customers like they are important because they are.
In today’s high tech and fast paced world customers can easily become a distraction, an interruption or an inconvenience if we allow it to be so. We must work to insure that customers are treated with respect and dignity and like they really matter to you. That can be a difficult task for the employee in a retail business today, because sometimes they are thrown out to the public with little or no training or don’t have the maturity to understand the importance of the customer. And, sometimes customers can be rude and unreasonable, but that is the exception so let’s concentrate on the normal everyday customer. That customer deserves respect and interest when they come into your business, after all, it’s their money they’re spending with you.
Sometimes in our little store the oldest and seemingly the dirtiest of farmers would come in and buy a few items, but when they wanted to buy “big groceries” they went to a larger store in the city. Yet, we were expected to treat that person just like the customers who bought nearly everything from us. The lasting lesson is that the customer who enters your business is a guest and should be treated as such. You never know who they might be or who they might influence.
Recently, I had another situation occur that underscores the importance of this lesson. I was renting a car at a large metropolitan airport and the person working the counter was not too interested in her customers. When I approached the counter and asked to change to a different type vehicle, she challenged the request that I’d made and essentially said “who do you think you are to be asking for a change to a reservation made by your company?” Well, I simply responded, “It’s my company.” I’ve never rented from that agency again. It probably hasn’t impacted their bottom line very much, but every customer counts.
#5: Quality counts in the product and the service you provide.
Have you ever been in a restaurant and had really good food but a bad experience because of the service? Most of us have and it illustrates the importance of both the product and the service quality.
At Miss Dot’s Grocery we pumped the gas, bagged the groceries and carried them to the car. That was the minimum acceptable level of service. Sometimes, we checked the oil and washed the windshield too. The products sold in most grocery stores are similar; the service provided is what distinguishes one from another unless a person is buying simply on the lowest price no matter what.
The lasting lesson is that the quality of the service you provide can be more important than what you actually sell the customer. In today’s world it is a given that you must sell quality products, it’s the service that can differentiate you from the competition.
#6: Value is what the customer wants, not just price.
One of the things we did for our customers was to pay the utility bills. On the shelf behind the cash drawer we kept a cigar box where folks would put their utility bills. We’d write one check per month to the REA Co-op and (that’s Rural Electric Association, for the city folks who don’t know about these things) charge the amount on the customers’ monthly bills. Now, that model has been replaced by on-line banking and bill payment, but in a rural setting a few decades ago it was a valuable service. Of course, we charged a fee for that service, but the value was what the customer wanted not just the price of the utility bill.
Today when customers come into our businesses they are looking at far more than just price in most cases. They are looking at the value of the product to them. For example, time is the critical factor today. So, folks will pay more for a prepared meal that can be micro-waved instead of one that must be prepared “from scratch.” The food industry is changing to meet this trend with high quality prepared foods, for example. The customer will pay more to have that convenience factor.
The lasting lesson is that price is not the deciding factor in most cases, but rather the value the product or service brings to the customer, or even the perceived value.
#7: Appreciate your customers.
When you go into an establishment and the clerk is talking on the phone and really doesn’t acknowledge you except to take your money, how does that make you feel? Probably like “I won’t be back.” How do you build a loyal customer base? Simple. Appreciate your customers. Sincerely appreciate them. How? Well, in Miss Dot’s Grocery it was through simple acts of kindness in times of need; a small gift at Christmas time (now, that’s another story altogether!); an extra cookie in the bag of a dozen; delivering items when needed; you get the picture. One other thing, we were expected to say “thank you and come back or come again” whenever a customer left whether they bought anything or not. The $0.15 cheese or bologna customer got the same appreciation as did the large grocery customer or gas customer.
The lasting lesson is that in today’s fast-paced world we take customers for granted and the successful business will show appreciation for the customer. The appreciation can simply be a sincere thank you or even a tangible thank you of some kind.
Practicing these seven golden rules of customer service will give you a competitive advantage. Train your employees in these principles and apply the lasting lessons. You’ll see the results in your bottom line! A quick review of the lasting lessons:
- Be there when your customers need you, whatever your business happens to be.
- Knowledge of your customers coupled with actions that let them know you care can result in an improved bottom line for you
- Never let your business systems dictate what you can do for your customers.
- The customer who enters your business is a guest and should be treated as such.
- The quality of the service you provide can be more important than what you actually sell the customer
- Price is not the deciding factor in most cases, but rather the value the product or service brings to the customer
- In today’s fast-paced world we take customers for granted and the successful business will show appreciation for the customer
(Note: You may view a brief video of these principles at Google video by searching for Davis Woodruff.)