Customers shop where they're treated well

Seminar set up to help businesses improve customer service

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Arlene Crumrine is paid to have an opinion about customer service in Juneau, and much of what she has to say isn't positive.

``A lot of our customer representatives are rude,'' said Crumrine, a former gift shop manager. She works periodically as a ``mystery shopper,'' reporting on customer service for national chains that want a review of their local stores.

``I think it's generally a problem and mainly because we're a captive audience here,'' Crumrine said. ``The customer service people really don't have to be courteous to you. Simple things -- like counting out your change.''

Juneau retailers are going to have to revisit customer service to survive the boom of e-commerce, said Jackie Stewart, director of the Juneau Small Business Development Center.

The center is holding a seminar on customer service with motivational speaker Lenise Henderson of Haines this Saturday at Centennial Hall.

``Local businesses in general don't seem to understand that customer service is the competitive advantage they could have,'' she said. ``Most people would rather buy locally. They're even willing to pay more.''

Stewart includes customer service in her free counseling for small business operators and says it's the key to staying in business as high-speed Internet access spreads, increasing the competitive threat already posed by catalogs.

``We can't compete on price. We can't compete on inventory. So what can we compete on?'' she said. ``Excellent customer service increases business. It's a known fact.''

The Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club has also cited a need for improvement and offers a customer service award to try to encourage better service. On Saturday, in conjunction with the seminar, the club will announce the winner of its sixth customer service award.

This year's nominees are Alaskan & Proud market, Alaska Marine Lines and Goldbelt's operation at the Mount Roberts Tramway.

``We recognize that everyone always can improve what they know about customer service,'' said PeggyAnn McConnochie, Rotary program chairwoman.

In general, observers say that customer service problems are linked to rapid turnover in the staff. Older employees with more years in the same store are seen as more knowledgeable and helpful.

While it will cost employers more to train and retain employees, that will be offset by savings on advertising, Stewart said. It costs five times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one, she said.

Research shows that shoppers are five times as likely to tell others about a bad experience than a good one, said Kirk Flanders, acting director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.

``Good businesses hire and retain good folks,'' he said. ``And I believe they sell more because of that. ... I think you get what you pay for.''

Romer Derr, past president of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said sometimes customers invite poor service by starting off with a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, and then staff ``has a tendency to reply in kind,'' Derr said.

And while it can seem hard to get waited on, employees might be trying to avoid a perception of pressuring the customer, Derr said.

The chamber's current president, Kathy Kolkhorst, sees local customer service in a positive light.

``I still feel there's a small-town quality about Juneau,'' Kolkhorst said.

The Juneau Economic Development Council has tried to schedule classes on customer service three times, but has never attracted enough interest to actually hold the classes, said acting director Kirk Flanders.

Flanders, who grew up in a family business in Nebraska, speculated that the pioneer legacy of Alaska might be at work in the customer service climate in Juneau.

``There is a polarity here,'' he said. ``It kind of builds in conflict. In some ways, I think we're lax about civil dialogue.''

Ron Flint of the Nugget Alaskan Outfitter, who tied for the 1997 Rotary customer service award with Don Abel, said he follows the old-time philosophy of fielding an experienced staff in a family-style environment. He said he has resisted the trend of hiring cheaper and going to more of a self-service format.

``A lot of the retail segment has gone to, `Price is the main issue,''' Flint said.

Henderson, who is leading the Saturday seminar, said business people know they need to pay attention to the customer, be friendly and be helpful.

``But there is often a huge gap between what we think we know and our behavior on a daily basis,'' she said. ``My goal is to help individuals bridge the gap.''

Henderson's seminar runs from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall and employers should consider sending their staff, Stewart said. The cost is $49 and people can register by calling Danny Pruhs at 586-6111.



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