July 15, 2014
By Jacki Hart CLP
Prosperity Partners program manager

Jacki HartI very well remember my days at Weall and Cullen Nursery in the flagship store on Sheppard Avenue throughout the 80s. Every May and June was crazy. The phones were relentless. The parking lot jammed. There were customers running over each other’s feet with their loaded carts, and long lines at the checkouts. And, of course, there was the endless line of customers with important gardening questions.

When it comes to customer service from those 10 years, what has stuck in my mind in my career, is how upset customers would get when they were promised something and we let them down.

It seemed like there was always the little things, like telling them a truck of annuals would be arriving the next morning with pink impatiens on it. So, they’d come in the afternoon to purchase their flowers, and there were none left. The list of examples of small promises made is a long one. Every time the customer was let down, the effect was the same. They lost a bit of trust in the company, and they were harder to please next time.

In my business, I’ve always remembered that lesson. Try as I might to make sure information flows through to the customer whenever something behind the scenes changes, sometimes we drop the communication ball. I’ve learned that it’s far better to give bad news, and be proactive with a follow up solution or next step plan, than to entirely forget to keep the customer in the loop.

Back orders are a great example. Whether you’re installing a lighting or irrigation system, a planting or a stone project, or selling product in a nursery or garden centre, your customer’s experience of doing business with you is key.

When you promise availability of either service or product by a specified date, deliver on it. If you can’t, for Pete’s sake, let the customer know as soon as you do. We often get caught up in the domino effect of a back order by scrambling to send a crew somewhere else, source the product elsewhere, or approve a substitution in an ad hoc manner. What we often forget is tell the customer there’s a change in plan.

I can tell you from my own experience as a customer, that poor communication is your worst enemy. Here’s an example. Last April, when turning the water on in a house I’d left vacant for the winter — and which is now listed for sale — I discovered a problem with the tankless hot water heater. It was a gushing flood; an OMG kind of problem.

I called the ONLY service company in Muskoka for this model. They came right out. Great. They took away the unit to see if they could repair it themselves. Great! They couldn’t fix it, but it took me three calls and a week to find out the status. Not so great. They ordered another one. Great. It arrived damaged. They forgot to tell me. They ordered another one. It arrived damaged. They forgot to tell me. Ten days went by. No call. No follow-up. Really not great.

I finally called them to learn of this fiasco, and was told, lo and behold the third unit had miraculously just arrived on the truck, while I was on the phone (as if….). They would be out tomorrow. A week later, I went to the house and test the hot water. No go — nary a drop. I called. Two days later I got a call back. They would come tomorrow at noon. I decided to go there and witness the miraculous event of re-installing the hot water unit. I sat there for two hours. I called. It was Friday afternoon. They changed their schedule and were coming some time next week. I lost it on the phone with the poor unsuspecting bearer of that bit of news.

Finally after FIVE weeks, the hot water is working. Will I ever do business with, or recommend, this company again? Not on your life. What happened? When I talked to the owner, whom I have known as a peer contractor and seen on hundreds of work sites over the past 20 years, he couldn’t understand why I was so frustrated with the lack of communication. I was flummoxed. In his mind, they knew behind the scenes what was going on, and that’s really all that mattered. Five weeks without hot water didn’t matter. They were in their loop, and their hands were tied by the manufacturer. It wasn’t their fault. I didn’t care whose fault it was — I had received VERY bad service.

I think this is a perfect example of how NOT to handle communication in a service business. It’s easy to keep yourself immersed in your own situation internally in the company, but the number one person who should get a phone call each and every time there’s a change that will affect delivery of what you’ve promised is your customer. They are first and foremost, every time.

I encourage you to consider whether everyone you work with has their priorities straight. It’s not logistics first, it’s customer experience first, which then drives logistics, planning, service and product delivery. As easy as it is to focus on delivering service, you must make sure the experience of the person you’re delivering it to is managed proactively and with care.
Jacki Hart may be contacted at prosperity@landscapeontario.com