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Counselor Commentary: Only Exceptional Is Good Enough

(6/26/2014)

The big economic news of the week was that first-quarter GDP in the U.S. shrank by a staggeringly dreadful 2.9%. It’s a number that reporters, economists and the shoe-shine guy at the airport are blaming on bad weather. It’s a fine enough theory, but a bit overstated – let’s see what happens over the next few months.

Interestingly enough, the ad specialty industry didn’t seem to mind the winter chill, as distributors reported Q1 sales that increased, on average, by 6.4%. Truth be told, though, more than a handful of industry execs have admitted publicly and privately that their early-year sales were softer than they would’ve liked.

All this brings us to a reality check. When something happens you can’t control – historically lousy weather, political unrest that launches fuel costs higher, a new government regulation that sends a sector spiraling – what will really keep your clients coming back? In other words, when the economy hits a snag and ad spending gets more conservative, what can you offer people that will keep you in the black? The answer is exceptional, over-the-top, unrivaled customer service.

Anything less in this, or any economy, is dangerous.

Sure, you might think your service level today is great – maybe it is. But there’s no doubt you can find a way to improve it. No matter the size of your company, you should have a personal and authentic relationship with your clients. Know their needs, their struggles, their birthdays, their pets’ names, their favorite flavors of ice cream. Respond faster, deliver more accurately, write notes not e-mail, and consistently give them more than they expect. In a world where faceless e-commerce firms are threatening, better service is your best weapon.

Back in 2012, when the economy was well, meh, one company – Ritz-Carlton – showed why its service is legendary. A little boy vacationing with his family at the Ritz in Amelia Island, FL, accidentally left behind a stuffed animal named Joshie. When the family got home and realized Joshie was missing, the only way the boy’s dad could get him to fall asleep was to tell a little lie: Joshie was just taking an extra-long vacation.

Fortunately, that same night, staff at the Ritz found Joshie in the hotel’s laundry and called the family. But instead of just mailing the stuffed animal back, Ritz staffers gave Joshie an actual, extended vacation, taking pictures of him wearing sunglasses on a poolside lounge chair, getting a facial massage, driving a golf cart and making friends with other furry creatures. The hotel even made Joshie a key card, because he was a Ritz guest, after all. Eventually, Joshie was returned to the boy, pictures in tow, all rested up.

Now do you think workers at the Amelia Island Ritz had to call a corporate office to make this happen? Of course not – it’s just what the company does – and it’s why in an age of travel-deal websites, Ritz customers are so loyal. Yeah, you don’t run a hotel chain, but the moral of the story applies. Are you the kind of company that loses Joshie, sticks him in an envelope or gives him a vacation? Now’s the time to decide – before the next blizzard.



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