Service is king

//May 22, 2009

Service is king

//May 22, 2009

Instead of lamenting the shrunken demand for her regularly scheduled classes in painting and drawing, artist Brenda Wintermyer hit on a creative way to fill her downtime.

Wintermyer began customizing workshops for customers who couldn’t fit into her existing schedule or who didn’t want the typical 10 hours of instruction.

In a growing economy, class schedules usually leave little room for special requests, Wintermyer said. But the recession has forced her to think more creatively and find no-cost ways of boosting business.

“You don’t want to turn potential workshoppers down because, gee, they can’t come on Wednesday night,” said Wintermyer, owner of Just Brenda Studio Art Gallery in downtown York and a longtime fixture in the city’s art scene.

Close attention to customer needs is a key ingredient in making sales regardless of the overall economy, business leaders said. Service becomes even more important in a downturn, when ad budgets shrink and customers grow thriftier.

“There’s no question that in restaurants, in most businesses right now, customer service is king,” said Patrick Conway, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, a Harrisburg-based trade group.

Service is especially important to businesses in which little else separates the stuff on your shelves from a rival’s.

“Many, many things that used to be highly differentiated have become commodities,” said Dean Sheaffer, senior vice president and controller with the Reading-based Boscov’s Department Store chain. “And the only way to differentiate yourself in the consumer’s mind is to offer a higher level of service.”

Sheaffer advised retailers to develop training programs and measures that keep track of how well customer-service representatives are doing.

Another way to boost service, he said, is through cross-training.

For example, employees who sell televisions should know about other aspects of the sales process, such as delivery and extended warranties. The extra knowledge makes salespeople a single point of contact for customers, no matter what questions they may have.

The positive impact of better customer service is largely intuitive, Sheaffer said. But Boscov’s has some evidence culled from customers who buy big-ticket items that require home delivery, such as washers, dryers, refrigerators and TVs.

Customers who have problems that are resolved properly end up showing more loyalty in the long run, Sheaffer said.

“The theory, although I don’t know that it’s possible to prove it … is that they know that if they have a problem in the future with Boscov’s, we’ll fix it for them,” Sheaffer said.

People who aren’t helped tend to shop elsewhere the next time they need something, he added.

At Fulton Bank, customer referrals are one of the measurements used to gauge customer service.

“We’ll know over time as we watch that whether or not we’re making headway,” said Craig Roda, chairman and chief executive officer of the bank, the largest affiliate of Lancaster-based Fulton Financial Corp.

Fulton has been honing its approach to customer service since the late 1990s, Roda said. The goal now is to create a memorable experience for customers.

As an example, Roda cited an assistant branch manager who helped a customer make ends meet while he waited for approval on his reverse mortgage, a complex financial product that converts home equity into cash for people over 62.

“No longer is high-quality service what’s going to make the difference,” Roda said.

Fulton has no plans to cut back because of the downturn, Roda added. “Now’s the time to put more emphasis on it. It’s not a very expensive proposition.”

Wintermyer, a painter who has taught at York College, opened her own gallery and studio in January on North Beaver Street, across from York’s Central Market.

She had worked previously as a partner in another gallery in the city. That partnership dissolved, she said, declining to elaborate.

“I just went and decided to do this full time and try it on my own,” she said.

Regular classes in drawing and painting at Just Brenda cost $16 per hour for five two-hour classes, Wintermyer said. Each class is limited to three students.

But some people couldn’t make the scheduled classes or wanted less than 10 hours of instruction, Wintermyer said. She decided to do what she could to meet their needs.

The response has been positive, she said. Three teenagers, for example, have begun taking individual drawing lessons paid for by their parents.

“It’s working out good for me so far,” Wintermyer said.