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Uncommon service in common places

Experts in business and economics have been writing for years about the move from a manufacturing to a service economy. More companies in the Fortune 500 derive their revenues from service and services than from manufacturing products. Yet, some of the Fortune 500, with their big revenues and big footprints, tend to forget the very basics of service—of focusing on their core customers, treating them well, making them feel valued, and thus keeping them coming back. With the economy increasingly reliant on service, why is it that we experience so many instances of bad service on a daily basis?

The big guys could learn a lesson or two from some smaller guys who, in relatively common places and without huge training budgets or sophisticated customer management technology, deliver uncommonly good service.

Expert service

In our town, there’s a neighborhood hardware store that has been in business since 1953. It has only three locations. Each store has a relatively small footprint compared to a Home Depot but seems to fit the perfect assortment of products into a convenient location, along with a very knowledgeable, attentive staff. Their motto is, “If we don’t have it, you probably don’t need it.” Unlike Home Depot, they don’t have 58 varieties of grills that make the selection process confusing. They have just the six that you might need. My husband and I have gone there to buy toilet repair kits, Christmas tree lights, space heaters, and doormats, and even to get documents notarized.

It’s not for the big contractor, who needs to buy all his supplies to build a house. It’s for the weekend do-it-yourselfer. Their prices are a bit higher than Home Depot’s, but the service is worth its weight in gold.

Walk into Strosnider’s, and one of the first things you see is the customer service desk … it’s a signal. Round the corner, and you’ll see a handful of gentlemen (and a few women) with the signature red apron on. They don’t run from you. They don’t pretend to be busy stocking shelves and ignore you. They actively approach you and ask what you need. When you tell them, they say, “That’s on aisle 27. Let me take you there.” They walk you to the aisle, show you the selection, explain the pros and cons of the different options, and can even provide installation advice if needed. They seem to know everything!

One day, my husband was at Strosnider’s on an errand and noticed they were taking the sign off the front of the building. Apparently, Strosnider’s is part of the Ace Hardware network and had put up a sign that displayed the Ace name quite prominently. They heard from so many panicked loyal customers asking if Strosnider’s had gone away that they had to modify the prominence of Ace on the sign for fear of losing business. That’s how powerful their service and their name are.



It’s not much to look at, but it’s a bright spot, a sought-after spot, because of one man.

The personal touch

At our local golf club, a small building is nestled between the seventh green and the eighth tee. Most snack places on a golf course are positioned at the exact halfway point … the ninth hole … to divide the front and back nines evenly for those who need nourishment or restrooms to tide them over. Why this one is placed here, I don’t know. Regardless, for those of us who get hungry a little early or have too much water to drink, having the Shack after #7 is a boon.

It’s not much to look at. Probably 300 square feet, made of wood, with screened windows and screened doors. It has bar seating and three or four small tables. The offering is equally modest. Some salty peanut butter crackers, hot dogs, beer, Gatorade, and a yummy homemade chicken salad. It looks a little tired, but it’s a bright spot, a sought-after spot, because of one man.

Step inside, and you’ll be greeted by ever-smiling, ever-enthusiastic George. “Mrs. Bates, how are you doing today? Where is your husband? Flying again?” He always remembers you, a tidbit about your family, or the last time you played. When I play with my son, John, he typically says, “Johnny, boy … how you playing today? Are you tearing it up? Want the usual?” For a 10-year-old boy, the “usual” is not a bourbon on the rocks or prime rib sandwich, but rather a red Gatorade and a hot dog with lots of ketchup. A stop at the Shack usually lasts no more than 10 minutes. Hot dogs can be consumed in four or five big, messy bites and drinks can be taken to go. But in those few minutes, George fills your tummy, makes a personal connection, and improves your mood.

With the eighth tee just steps outside the bar where he serves his simple fare, he often yells through the screened windows a few more words of encouragement. As my son steps to the #8 tee, with red Gatorade mustache and a crumb or two of hot dog bun at the corner of his mouth, George yells, not too loud, but just loud enough, “Hit it on the green my boy … hit it on the green.” John steps up with boosted confidence and a bit bigger chest (as big a chest as a 58-pound boy can make) and swings hard. Whether he hits it on the green or shanks it into the rough, the thought of George, his ready smile, his words of encouragement, and his ability to remember the little details about you are enough to keep him coming back.

George takes a dumpy little building and a meager offering and turns them into an experience. I have friends who play tennis, not golf, and after their tennis matches, they go to the Shack to have a “girls’ lunch.” Seriously? A mere 30 steps from the tennis court is a lovely dining room that overlooks the swimming pool and offers a nice variety of sandwiches, salads, and seafood. But, rather than dine in that more elegant setting, they choose to go to the Shack. They choose the Shack because, tucked back among the oaks and fairways, it’s like a secret little gem with service that has warmth, personality, and heart.



Our pediatric dentist has transformed a typically painful experience into one that’s worth telling about.

A thoughtfully crafted experience

Like most children, mine hate going to the dentist. Strange people putting drills, electric brushes, and other instruments of torture in your mouth while chastising you for not flossing. However, our pediatric dentist has transformed a typically painful experience into one that’s worth telling about.

First, they created a space that makes kids feel comfortable. Apparently, the head doctor’s favorite color is purple, so the predominant color scheme is purple—from the walls to the cabinetry to the uniforms, and even to the ink in the pens! While it’s not my favorite, no child can be intimidated by a place that’s mostly purple. It’s happy, it’s cheerful … it’s Barney for goodness sake. One-quarter of the waiting room is devoted to a faux castle with chairs, books, and age-appropriate TV shows inside for the younger group. Another portion houses a collection of Wii games for the older crowd. Actually, “waiting room” is a misnomer, as we’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for an appointment.

The hallways and treatment rooms are painted with colorful murals of underwater scenes and jungle animals. A “Wall of Fame” shows children, who are patients, smiling their big, happy, and in some cases toothless smiles. It makes the children feel as if they’re among friends.

The dental assistants speak to the children in calm, soothing tones. They ask about school or sports or friends. They keep the child mentally occupied and emotionally content while they do their work. And it’s not an act. They genuinely seem to care.

When it’s time for the dentists to do their examination, they talk to the child and the parent in a calm, consultative manner. They aren’t rushed, but they are punctual and efficient.

At the end, you don’t deal with any paperwork. They handle it all for you. Your only job is to help your child find a prize in the treasure chest and select the next appointment time, for which they will send you a friendly e-mail confirmation one week in advance.

In special circumstances, when you really need them, they are incredibly responsive. They filled out and returned forms for school within the same business day…even filling in information that I should have been responsible for. When my daughter chipped her two front teeth on the side of the swimming pool late one summer Sunday afternoon, I had one of the dentists on the phone within five minutes and an appointment scheduled for 8:00 the next morning.

And, oh, by the way, they pay you by the pound to bring in your uneaten Halloween candy. Talk about practicing what you preach!

Creating your own uncommonly good service

So, what can we learn from these three examples of uncommonly good service in common places?

  1. Know your customer. Know what they want, why they want it. Anticipate what they may want even though they may not express it. Design your offering to meet those needs. Dr. Amy Light has created a service experience that assuages nervous children and makes life easy on harried moms.
  2. Focus on your core business. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Strosnider’s doesn’t try to be Home Depot. They serve a niche Home Depot ignores (or just serves poorly). George doesn’t serve prime rib or fancy drinks at the Shack. He offers basic fare that appeals to 10-year-old boys and 45-year-old mothers just looking for something simple.
  3. Make a personal connection. While I don’t know the names of the salespeople or the owner of Strosnider’s, and they don’t know mine, I never feel like a stranger walking in the store. I feel as if I’m among friends. As for George, he specializes in remembering personal details about each golfer who walks through the screened door.
  4. Do the basics right. Strosnider’s connects you with the product you need and a little bit of knowledge for how to use it … quickly and efficiently. Dr. Light’s team gets you in and out of their office in less than 45 minutes. They respond to requests and emergencies quickly. They take care of the unpleasant details, like insurance forms, for you.
  5. Care, genuinely. The salespeople who work at Strosnider’s have a passion for what they do. They like to build things or fix things or paint … and they like to share that knowledge with others. Dr. Light and her dentists love children. They remember what it was like to be one. They run an office that cares for teeth and children, not one that processes cleaning appointments and fills cavities. And George, well, he just loves people. He seems to take delight in being the bright spot in someone’s day. The smiles on the faces of 10-year-old boys and the conversations he has with grizzled veterans about their hurting backs are what drive him. And it shows.

This seems like a simple list. But, somehow, most businesses miss doing these things, either totally or in part. Whether you’re running a Fortune 500 company with millions of customers or a small business with a handful of customers, you can’t go wrong focusing on these common-sense approaches to delivering uncommon service.