CEO Thoughts

My Father and His Customers

I grew up in business. My father was a serial entrepreneur and his lifelong dream was to build a business and run his own show. He never achieved the really big, breakthrough success that I think he desired, but he did okay. He was also one of the kindest, gentlest men one could ever meet, and he was truly loved by those who knew him, but that’s a story for another time.

He had a lot of ups and downs in his business career but the one thing he could always count on was customer loyalty the likes of which is rarely seen today. My dad died when he was just 72 years old, but he was still running his business right up to that last day. He had customers that were still active who had been with him nonstop for 40 years. You don’t get that kind of loyalty without some pretty incredible level of dedication to customer service.

I don’t think that anything underscores his dedication to his customers more than a story I can tell you from my teenage years. I was perhaps 16 or 17 at the time, and my dad was then running two small businesses. The first was a local Milwaukee-area courier, or delivery service. He had about 20 guys with cars, vans, and small trucks running all around the city delivering packages, parcels, small pieces of freight, etc. this was in the time before e-mail and even fax machines. Imagine this if you can; when you needed to get some paperwork across town quickly, someone had to physically pick it up and deliver it, there was no electronic option. Time and speed was of the essence in this business because the guarantee to the customer was that packages could be delivered anywhere in the city within one hour of their call.

This created a constantly changing puzzle of sorts. Orders would be coming in on the phone for packages to be picked up and delivered from all over the city, drivers would be dispatched by radio to grab the package, take it to the delivery point, and move on to the next assignment as quickly as possible. The art of it was stringing together the pickups and deliveries in the most efficient way possible. Drivers would be crisscrossing around the city picking up two or three packages at a time, making deliveries, sometimes meeting other drivers and handing off packages that were going in a direction that they were, etc. 

keeping all these balls in the air was the job of the dispatcher, and it was an amazingly demanding job. You had to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city, know exactly how long it would take to get from one point to another at different times of day, have an accurate mental image of where each driver was, where every pickup and delivery point was, who had what packages on board, what direction they were going, etc. The dispatcher would then have to make constant and ever changing decisions as to who got the next order, how to make things all work out so everything got delivered on time, deal with unending changes, delays in getting unloaded, traffic jams, accidents, weather problems, and an amazing array of continuously moving parts and situations. It was kind of like being an air traffic controller without the benefit of any radar or systems. My dad was great at doing this, and he loved the adrenaline rush of this particular game.

My dad also had another business, which was kind of a crazy one. It was a truck-washing operation called “Cleanco” How this business worked is that my dad had three or four medium-sized trucks that were specially built with water storage tanks inside them, and pumps, hoses, chemicals and all kinds of specialized equipment to wash big fleets of trucks on-site. I started working in this business when I was thirteen years old, by the time I was sixteen I was running a crew, and by the time I was eighteen I was running the entire business, but that also is a story for another time.

My dad had a combination warehouse/office that he ran his businesses from, and at night the truck washing vehicles would be pulled inside because they had to be filled up with water for the next day’s work. The water we filled the trucks with was heated by an onboard LP burner that had amazing capacity. You could literally hook a fire hose to this burner and the inferno-like flames were so incredible that the water could go in one side of the heater at 40° and, almost instantly, come out the other at 150° or hotter. These burners used enormous amounts of LP gas, and remember, they were inside of a sealed warehouse. A rule was that when the trucks were being filled the doors to the warehouse were supposed to be opened up to provide ventilation. One night someone forgot to do this, started filling the trucks with water, turned on the big burners, closed up the warehouse and left for the night.

The burners fired away and the warehouse filled up with dangerous carbon monoxide fumes overnight. My dad came into the office early that morning, he was the first one there as was usually the case. He came in through the front, directly into the office, and not through the warehouse so he didn’t know that the warehouse doors were sealed and the entire building was full of invisible, odorless, undetectable, but quite poisonous carbon monoxide gas.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is an interesting thing. The carbon monoxide binds to the red blood cells running through your veins and slowly chokes them off from being able to carry oxygen. Often one can’t even discern the effects until it’s too late. One of the telltale effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is that your skin turns cherry red.

My dad was sitting in his dispatcher’s desk, on the radio and doing the air traffic controller thing with all of his drivers when they started noticing that his instructions to them were becoming ever more muddled and confusing. This finally culminated him telling a driver “Get to the zoo and pick up the elephant!” At this point some of the drivers thought it was a good idea to maybe call an ambulance.

I must have been home from school that day, because at some point I remember a driver called me and told me I had to get to the office right away because something was wrong with my dad. We lived about 15 minutes away, and I think I made it there in 5 minutes.

By the time I got there an ambulance was on site, several squad cars, and a bunch of drivers had converged on the office and were milling around. I pushed through the door and there was my dad, flat down on the floor, EMTs working on him, red as a bing cherry, and semi-coherent at best. 

Here’s the amazing thing – and the business lesson I learned that day. My dad saw me standing in the corner, tears streaming down my face. He had oxygen on and they were strapping him onto a stretcher. He motioned for me to come over and I thought he was going to tell me he loved me, or give me the combination to his safe deposit box or something along those lines. Instead, he starts trying to bring me up to speed on where all of the drivers are and the deliveries they had to get done. He’s saying things like: “Driver 64 has to get downtown by 10 o’clock to pick up the mail run.” “Driver 17 can meet him coming crosstown and exchange all his airport deliveries to drop off at the air freight terminal.”

I was astonished! Here the guy is, laid out on a stretcher and gasping into an oxygen mask and being hauled out the door into an ambulance and the number one thing on his mind is making sure that none of his customers get bad service!

That’s a business and life lesson that you’re not going to learn at Harvard Business School.

And it’s a lesson I’ve taken with me. It was illustrated for me that day in dramatic fashion, but it was illustrated every single day in the way my dad ran his business. The man took care of his customers, and in turn they took care of him. That’s why at my dad’s funeral he had dozens of flower arrangements from customers who wrote the most moving sentiments in their cards. That’s why he had customers who were with him for 40 years.

I continue that tradition myself the best I possibly can. Your customers are King. Everything you do should be judged on how it serves and affects them. I am constantly astounded almost beyond words by the businesses I see who do such a lousy job at customer service. When they choose to under serve a customer, or ignore them, or argue with them, or nickel and dime them with confusing and abusive “policies”, or even do something as seemingly innocuous as not have convenient or consistent hours of business, what do they think is going to happen to their business?

At Forever Companies we’ve done some seemingly crazy things to take care of our customers. Once, early in the business a gentleman who lived in Seattle had bought an engagement ring from us and was presenting the ring to his fiancée at an engagement party that much of his family had traveled from all over to attend. He had placed the order for the ring very late, but we had promised him we would get it to him but it would come right down to the last day. The engagement party was on a Saturday and we shipped the ring out on Thursday for Friday morning delivery. There was a shipping error made, and DHL Courier (who we no longer use) delivered the ring to Miami instead of Seattle!

When we found out about this error we called the customer and explained it to him and he was, naturally, distraught. I remember our customer service rep coming to my office and telling me “The man just said we ruined his life.” We made the decision to actually get an employee on a plane to Florida, physically pick up the ring, fly to Seattle and hand deliver it to the customer. The ring was in the customer’s hand at one o’clock Saturday afternoon.

Of course, we lost thousands of dollars on this transaction. But, sometimes you just have to make a statement and take care of business. This taught a lesson that could never be taught in any words of mine to our young and growing staff.

They saw in concrete terms and real-world actions just how important an emphasis we place on customer service. This spirit has always been part of our culture, and it’s the chief reason we have a 97% customer satisfaction rating. We get literally hundreds of e-mails, letters and testimonials from customers about our service every year. If you ever visit our Franklin Wisconsin Headquarters, you’ll see that the walls of our reception area are lined with these letters. Sometimes I stand in that room and read them, and as I do I smile and think about my dad and I’m proud of that heritage and what he taught me about loving your customer.

Take these thoughts with you:

  • Love your customer. Really love him and her and act like it every day. If you can’t feel this truly and deeply in your heart, get the hell out of business.
  • If you have to lose money to take care of a customer once in a while, do it and don’t think twice about it. That lost money will come back to you a tenfold.
  • Hire people who are passionate about the customer. If you ever find anyone in your company talking about customers as if they are not living, breathing people but faceless entities, as if they are numbers or profit figures or cash cows, get those people out of your company immediately. I don’t tolerate the use of the word “consumer” in my companies. Our customers are people who are giving us the honor of coming to us to be served and helped, not mindless beings who “consume”
  • Avoid the temptation to play games with your customers that might make you a few bucks in the short term, but hurts your loyalty and credibility with your customer. These are things like cheap add-ons, cross-sells, up-sells and other sales games that so many companies play. Yes, you can make some money with these tricks, but your customer walks away feeling used. If a friend came to you and wanted to buy something from your company, would you hit him with an upsell? Of course not. Why would you do it then to your best friend of all, the person who pays your bills and makes your business possible?

You can do an upsell or cross sell or a special promotion in a way that is positive. Just make sure that it is truly a great deal and that it is benefiting the customer to a significant degree. Even then, do it with gentleness and make the customer understand why this is truly a benefit.

Remember Henry Ford’s famous saying: “Take Care of Your Customers, Or Someone Else Will.”