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Precious & Few

7 Customer Service Gems

A DIAMOND IS FOREVER: The Wedding Ring Shop’s Stella Ching helps Isaac Sisneros make just the right purchase. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

Like the perfect diamond, superior customer service is a rare find. Likewise, no two companies are alike when it comes to delivering great service. Every business, large or small, has its own signature approach to delivering service that wows. Some companies rely on tried-and-true

service models, while others write their own service-training playbooks. Whatever the method, they're all striving for the same result - happy, satisfied customers. Here, we present seven companies and their unique methods of delivering shining service.

1. The Wedding Ring Shop - Because It’s Once in a Lifetime

The very thought of a lifelong commitment is often enough to give cold feet to any man leaping from bachelor to fiancé. When you add the anxiety involved with choosing and paying for a multithousand-dollar engagement ring, it's a wonder men can work up the nerve to propose at all. To alleviate some of that anxiety, The Wedding Ring Shop goes to great lengths to make its customers comfortable with making that special, once-in-a-lifetime purchase.

"When men walk into our store, it's usually to purchase a very important engagement ring, which is not only expensive, but it represents a monumental occasion, and it's a very nerve-wracking experience for them," says Michael Han, president of The Wedding Ring Shop.

Han says the "experience" of buying a ring at his store begins the moment a customer walks through the glass doors. "Our normal involvement with a customer will be up to three different occasions for one purchase, so immediately, we have to establish rapport," says Han. "A lot of men come in and are very much needing to have someone be an advocate for him, and actually help him make a good, smart purchase, rather than trying to force or trick him into buying something."

Just the same, Han understands that, while most women might be suckers for empathetic salespeople, men are typically more analytical. "They don't want to be told, 'This is good quality.' They want to know exactly what makes it good," says Han. In this regard, The Wedding Ring Shop has its bases covered. After being advised on the layout of the store, customers are given a presentation on diamonds, which covers everything from clarity to cuts, by one of the store's sales associates - all of whom are trained and certified in diamondology. Shoppers are also provided a diamond brochure for quick reference and are, at any time, free to scrutinize any of the pieces using the shop's various tools and microscopes.

SHINING SERVICE: Michael Han says having a good emotional quotient (EQ) is essential for his line of work. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

"We try to equip them with everything they need to make the right decision for that special purchase," says Han. After all, it's a decision meant to be made only once in every man's lifetime.

But The Wedding Ring Shop hasn't become one of Ala Moana's highest-grossing tenants (based on sales per square foot) by selling engagement rings to customers who make one big buy and never return. Besides wedding rings, the store offers a small selection of quality jewelry for any occasion, and thus works very hard at maintaining regular customers. The Wedding Ring Shop offers lifetime free cleaning and repairs on all of its products. Employees follow up after each purchase with a phone call and thank-you note. And certain V.I.P. customers receive flowers and other gifts during the holidays.

"It's just sort of our way of thanking the people who have been loyal to the store over the years," says Han. In all, roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of the store's customers are repeat shoppers. Perhaps more telling is the number of active customers in the store's database. "We've got 17,000 right now, and it's growing," says Han, who founded The Wedding Ring Shop in 1987 after resigning from the fine-jewelry department at Liberty House, where he felt customers were neglected. "I always felt that was too bad, that the customers were being ignored. That's why I personally read every single one of our customer surveys, and I will do so as long as our customers do us the honor of filling them out." And that's a vow Han intends to keep.

2. KTA Super Stores - Caring for the Community

When Safeway set up shop on the Big Island in the 1970s, it was the first major retailer to introduce Mainland beef as a mainstream option to locally raised meat. The quality of Safeway's beef was said to be more consistent than local meats, and it was undoubtedly cheaper. Consequently, longtime local retailer, KTA Super Stores, suffered a slowdown in beef sales, as did many of the smaller local grocery chains offering local meats. But KTA wasn't about to tuck its tail between its legs and concede defeat.

Instead, KTA Executive Vice President Derek Kurisu countered by publishing a short book on how to buy quality cuts of local meats at affordable prices. The book did two things: it provided handy information about the quality and cost of meats, and it helped brand local beef. Kurisu distributed the books to local schools and nonprofits, which sold them for fundraising. The community benefited, and local beef sales eventually increased.

"Those days, people didn't have computers or the Internet, so there wasn't a lot of places they could learn about beef. So we raised the awareness of local meats, and were able to help keep the local ranchers in business," says Kurisu.

It's that commitment to local people and serving their needs that Kurisu believes is the basis for KTA's service model and distinguishes KTA from its big-box counterparts. "When all our competitors started coming in, people started comparing, so we knew we had to learn to get better," says Kurisu. "But to us, service is more than just saying, 'Hi,' because you're paid to, or giving out samples because you're required to. Service is everything from knowing how to price what is important to the local people, to hiring the right employees, who sincerely care about the customers."

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Derek Kurisu says community involvement is a big part of KTA's customer service approach. That's why the chain stocks its shelves with fresh produce from local farmers.Photo: Macario

The difference, says Kurisu, is that, at KTA, employees favor a heartfelt "mahalo" and a genuine smile over thanking Mrs. So-and-so while muttering her name from a receipt. They're also willing to go above and beyond for their customers, like the time a customer wanted cabbage, but the store ran out. "I called the local wholesaler at six in the evening, he opened his chill box right then and hauled the cabbage up to the store," says Kurisu. "We can do that, because that's the kind of relationship we have with the locals. We couldn't do stuff like that if it weren't for the support of the local community."

For that reason, KTA's charitable contributions to the community have been abundant and far-reaching. Not only does KTA donate tens of thousands of dollars annually to local charities, it also keeps its warehouse stocked with almost two months' worth of household supplies, in the event of a natural disaster or another shipping strike. From its private-label Mountain Apple Brand, which promotes locally produced goods, to the cable television show it produces monthly, "Living in Paradise," which showcases all the positive things happening on the Big Island, KTA is dedicated to being there for the local community.

"Community involvement is a big part of our customer-service strategy. People keep coming back to KTA, because they know we're here for them. We engrain it in every one of our employees that we're here to provide the food and household needs of the Big Islanders," he says. "We're not perfect. Customer service is something we keep working on. But that's because it's not just a matter of saying it. At KTA, we want our people to almost live customer service." You can tell it's something for which Kurisu himself strives … beyond the confines of his stores.

Editor's note: Derek Kurisu is the brother of Duane Kurisu, chairman and chief executive officer of AIO Group, the holding company for PacificBasin Communications, which publishes Hawaii Business.

3. Alana Doubletree - Know Your Market

Even though the Alana Doubletree Hotel is located midway between two of Oahu's most popular tourist destinations - Waikiki Beach and Ala Moana Shopping Center - you aren't likely to find a lot of beach ball-toting visitors in the lobby. That's because, unlike most Waikiki hotels that spend thousands of dollars wooing the traveling leisure segment, the Alana's amenities and services are geared more toward a different market - the often-neglected local and business travelers.

"So many businesses fall by the wayside, because they try to be too many things to too many people," says Jeff Thompson, a New York-based hotel analyst. "In business, it really pays to know your niche, and, in the case of the Alana Doubletree, they've really established themselves as the go-to hotel for kamaaina and business travelers, and they've done so without completely shunning the tourist market, either."

Alana Doubletree General Manager Tom Herman says he doesn't recall exactly when the hotel earned its reputation as a safe haven for local and business travelers, but he says the company works hard to attract and keep its core clientele. For starters, Alana does a lot of advertising on the Neighbor Islands, and promotional kamaaina packages are put together about twice a year. The packages typically include one or more of the following local favorites: free parking, free local calls, restaurant coupons or car rentals.

"These are the kinds of things that local people have said they want when they're in a hotel. Being that the bulk of our customers are business or kamaaina travelers, we do try to anticipate their wants and needs as best as possible, and then respond to those needs," says Herman.

To that end, the Alana has tailored its guest services and in-room amenities to address the needs of its business clientele. Nearly 40 percent of the guest rooms are hard-wired with high-speed Internet, and, by the end of June 2004, the entire property will be 100 percent wireless. All parking is valet, so guests needn't struggle with the hassle of self-parking, and most business services, such as incoming faxes, are complimentary. Furthermore, all rooms are equipped with an iron and free coffee.

BED AND BREAKFAST: Val Stiris and daughter, Larisa, receive Alana Doubletree's signature chocolate chip cookies upon arrival. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

"Some hotels aim their amenities toward the honeymooners. The Alana Doubletree is all about the local business traveler. Good closet space, the iron's already there, I don't ever sweat the parking, there's a phone right in the bathroom and most rooms have two sinks," explains Luahiwa Namahoe, a Big Island resident who stays at the Alana several times a year during business trips to Oahu.

What Namahoe may not realize is the level of planning that goes into caring for Alana's return guests before they even step foot on the property. As a member of the Hilton family of hotels, Doubletree properties have access to Hilton's massive guest database, which makes them privy to all sorts of guest preferences. As a result, the hotel is able to personalize guest stays by accommodating preferences, such as nonsmoking rooms, double beds or high floors, ahead of time. In return, satisfied customers reward the Alana with repeat visits and word-of-mouth referrals.

"We have a pretty good reputation with [business travelers and Neighbor Island guests]," says Herman. "It seems to me that if we can get them in the door, they tend to keep coming back."

4. Diagnostic Laboratory Services - Models Can Be Molds for Success

In the business of laboratory medical testing, there really is nothing that distinguishes different laboratories from one another, other than customer service. Because the industry is so heavily regulated, and there is very little variation in pricing, the level of service provided is almost always the deciding factor when doctors and patients choose a medical testing lab. That is why, in 1999, after years of operating without specific methods for testing, measuring and improving its service, Diagnostic Laboratory Services (DLS) turned to experts for help.

"We were introduced to the Baldridge Model, which is a proven, established framework for excellence. Underpinning that, we also began to follow the Deming's Principals, which is, again, a proven set of principles for companies to abide by to improve business efficiencies," says Renee A. Watase, internal quality consultant for DLS.

PUT TO THE TEST: Lab assistant Danilo Junio says customers have high expectations of the DLS staff. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

Watase says the basic scheme of the Baldridge Model is "Plan, Do, Study, Act" - a process which has bettered service in several different departments at DLS. One example is when customers' surveys revealed customers were being treated impolitely over the phone. Right away, a Special Project Action Team (SPAT) was put together to prepare a plan, implement it and study the results. The next time customers were surveyed there were virtually no complaints. To make sure the problem didn't reoccur, specific phone service-skills were incorporated into the next round of employee service training.

"We started using these very systematic ways to make improvements at our company, and we've since seen a dramatic improvement," says Watase. "Prior to that, we were sort of just knee-jerking, and saying 'Oh, this customer is mad, let's just do this and fix it.' But we weren't systematically looking at why the error was occurring or the customer was complaining."

DLS chose the Baldridge Model, because it is a nationally acclaimed process for improving the overall effectiveness of a company, which makes the customer its primary focus. There are literally hundreds of other established models for improving business efficiency, which can, in most cases, be applied to any type of business. They range from universal programs that disseminate free information on the Web (such as the Baldridge Model) to industry-specific models costing thousands of dollars.

According to DLS Vice President of Marketing Edward Hope, there are many benefits to using an established model for service. It's already been implemented at hundreds of other companies worldwide, so, rather than start from scratch, you're able to utilize a method that other companies have already tested and proven capable of improving service. Furthermore, it establishes a system for measuring and improving service for organizations whose previous methods were inefficient or unsuccessful. "Before we began following the Baldridge Model, we didn't have much of a training program. We sort of learned everything a la carte and tried to piece it together," explains Hope. "Now, our response to problems is very systematic. We get a team together, we make a plan, we do what it takes to improve it, then we measure the success. It's highly effective, because the framework is already set up. All we have to do is implement it."

5. The Cheesecake Factory - Consistency Is Key

It's hard to imagine a company that doesn't spend a dime on advertising becoming as wildly successful as The Cheesecake Factory. That's right, since opening its first restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1978, the company hasn't ever advertised, and yet more than 225,000 hungry patrons manage to find their way to the its 75 restaurants daily. In the months leading up to the opening of the chain's first Hawaii restaurant late last year, Honolulu was abuzz with Factory Fever. Even now, six months after the December opening of The Cheesecake Factory in Waikiki, customers are still lining up to see what all the fuss is about.

Granted, the Factory's considerable 200-plus-item menu and its 40-something mouth-watering variations of cheesecake might have something to do with its popularity, but the chain wouldn't be nearly as successful if it were not for one key ingredient: consistency.

Regardless of whether they're at The Cheesecake Factory in White Plains or the one in Seattle, guests of the famed restaurant can always expect the same food, matching décor and, most importantly, the same great service. That's because The Cheesecake Factory knows you can't put a price tag on good service.

"Because we don't advertise, we have to work hard to make sure that we consistently give our guests a wonderful experience, so that they can be our word-of-mouth advertisers," says Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing for The Cheesecake Factory Inc.

As such, all new employees complete an extensive training program that includes hands-on and classroom training culminating in a quiz and certification. The company issues annual re-certifications, and does continuous, year-round testing. If employees fall below 90 percent, they're given the chance to retest. If it happens again, just like in "The Apprentice," they're fired!

But the Factory doesn't stop there. The company holds biannual meetings to review service goals, secret shoppers observe the restaurants regularly and daily meetings are conducted to review service standards with the staff. In addition, the company's service standards are evaluated by Area Directors and Field Training Managers to ensure all guests receive the same service experience across the country.

BREAKING THE ICE: Cheesecake Factory server David Simmons delivers frosty drinks to thirsty patrons. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

"Our service, our menu, our food presentation - everything's exactly the same as you'd expect to find it in any other The Cheesecake Factory across the nation," says Gordon. "And that's the thing - people have a certain expectation of The Cheesecake Factory, whether they're in Boston or San Francisco or Honolulu, so we can't disappoint them." To that end, the restaurant continually strives to achieve what it has coined "The Wow Factor."

"When you walk into a Cheesecake Factory, you're going 'Wow! This is like nothing I've ever seen before.' Then you pick up the menu and you're thinking, 'Wow! Look at the menu,' and the same goes for everything else," says Gordon. Lately, though, the only thing locals have been wowing about are the long waits (sometimes up to 2 hours), outside of the Cheesecake Factory's Waikiki restaurant. Despite being the largest Factory restaurant to date, with 550 seats in 15,000 square feet (annual sales at the Waikiki location are expected to exceed $11 million), the place still isn't large enough to accommodate the lines of people that snake around the corner on weekends and weeknights.

"The fact is, people wouldn't wait if they didn't want what we're offering," says Gordon, who argues against any implication that the company may have become a victim of its own success. "They're all here for that Wow Factor, and our goal, really, is to be able to give that to all of our guests, so you're getting that same great service whether you're local or not."

6. Kahala Shell - Lead by Example

Kahala Shell Auto Care Inc. may not have a formal customer service-training program, but patrons of the neighborhood service station say they get nothing less than superior service whenever they stop by the station. "I stop by there two or three times a month, and the employees are always quick to say hello, and they're always polite and eager to help me, whether I'm filling up gas or just picking up coffee," says longtime customer Sylvia Patterson. "I think the reason they're so attentive is because they take their cues from their boss, Bill Green. You can just tell when you see him that he's very concerned about delivering the best possible service, and he wants every one of his employees to emulate that."

MAN DOWN UNDER: The staff at Kahala Shell take their cues from owner Bill Green, who places a heavy emphasis on service. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

Patterson is right on the money. Green, who took over the Kahala Shell 24 years ago, says he is continually striving to deliver the best customer service. In doing so, he tries to set an example for his nearly 40 employees, some of whom, he says, might be otherwise unemployable at other businesses. "Some of these guys, literally, all they can do is maybe wipe down cars at the car wash. So maybe they just wouldn't handle or understand a more formal training program," he says. "But that doesn't mean you can't teach them to be friendly and helpful, and how to relate to the customer."

Green literally takes a hands-on approach to setting an example for his staff. He personally greets customers he sees drive up onto the property within 10 seconds of their arrival, he acknowledges regular customers by their first names and he is never above doing things that might not fall within the scope of his primary responsibilities, such as tidying up or assisting a confused customer. His subordinates have learned to follow suit.

"As managers, one of the things we try to teach is that, while the employees have primary jobs, sometimes we all have to step in and help one another in order to get where we need to go, even if that means doing something that might not be our responsibility," says Madeleine Snow, business manager of Kahala Shell. "When employees see managers doing things, like clean the bathroom if it's dirty, they respect that, and they will begin to imitate that behavior."

Snow says that as contagious as Green's penchant for delivering good service is to his employees, it's equally appreciated by the community. "A lot of our customers have been with us for a very long time, and it's mainly because Bill has really developed quite a rapport with the people in the community," she says. "A little while ago, we had a longtime customer who drove her car off a hillside. The police got there, and she refused to get out of her car until Bill Green went up there and told her what to do. She knew that she would be okay once Bill got there, and that just exemplifies the kind of trust and relationships that Bill has established with our customers."

7. City Mill - Hire the Person, Not the Resume

Unlike most top executives of multimillion-dollar companies, Carol Ai May and her brother Steven Ai of City Mill Co. Ltd., answer their own phones. Their theory is that there's nothing worse than routing callers through a receptionist with tighter screening than airport security personnel, or forcing them to navigate through an elaborate automated phone system. "We get that from our dad (David Ai). He's always stressed a customer focus upon us," says Ai May, vice president and marketing manager of City Mill. "He taught us to always answer our own phones, that everyone helps the customers all of the time and that everyone is a potential customer."

While David, whose father founded City Mill in 1899, taught his children the foundation for good customer service, Ai May says she and her brother have very different management styles from their father. Under their father's direction, the company hired employees specifically for their carpentry or woodworking skills, or their extensive product knowledge. "We were doing okay, but we knew that we had to change and become more contemporary and more people-focused," says Ai May. "So in 1998, senior management got together, and we actually changed the way we hired people."

Instead of hiring technically skilled employees with perhaps lackluster service, City Mill sought charismatic employees with positive energy and attitudes. "You can teach customer service, and you can teach product knowledge, but you can't teach energetic, outgoing attitudes, and that's what it boils down to," says Ai May. "As a customer, even if someone doesn't know something, if they have a positive attitude, you're going to be more forgiving. Especially if they're going out of their way to help you find someone who does have the product knowledge."

To faster sift through the hundreds of job applicants City Mill sees each week, the company started a routine hiring process. Every Monday, applicants are brought in for group interviews, during which they're given a variety of hypothetical situations. The outstanding candidates move on to one-on-one interviews, until eventually, only the most eager and outgoing remain. On a good day, five out of 10 applicants will make it through. Usually though, just two lucky hopefuls survive.

A CUT ABOVE THE REST: Josh Towne made it through City Mill's extensive hiring process. Here, he and a customer discuss chainsaw safety. Photo: Karin Kovalsky

The change in the hiring process brought about an immediate shift in customer satisfaction and employee morale. Ai May says it's as though a wave of positive energy swept through the entire company, and, once it happened, the company didn't want to lose the momentum. A corporate training administrator was hired, along with trainers for each of the individual stores, the company began holding regular service-training classes and mystery shoppers were brought in to measure service levels.

Most importantly, City Mill took steps to provide the best possible working environment for its employees. After devoting so much time and resources into hiring the right people, it would have been a shame not to invest equally in keeping them. The company began rewarding employees who exhibited good customer service with an internal rewards program. Employees accumulate points when customers compliment their service, either in person or via surveys. The points are traded for prizes that range from watches to hundreds of dollars worth of gift certificates.

City Mill also put together a benefits package that Ai May touts as "one of the best in the state," and started surveying its staff and following up on their concerns. "It's very important to us to listen to our employees, because we want to be an employer of choice," says Ai May. "We want to be a place where people say, 'I want to work here. I love my job and I'm happy here.'"

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