What is it about customer service that drives everybody nuts? Polls show that it plays an enormously important role for any business hoping to garner repeat business. Other polls indicate that nothing will make customers turn on their heels and flee faster than bad customer service. So why is it that most people say that the quality of customer service is plummeting faster than a crooked politician’s approval rating?

“The most common mistake that businesses make is they think that good customer service is easy to do,” says Phil Cooper, president of Cooper Pest Solutions, based at 351 Lawrence Station Road. “Most organizations think that it is just common sense and that if they tell their employees to be nice and friendly, then they will be able to deliver the excellent customer service experience. It is definitely not that simple.”

Cooper speaks on “Customer Service and Client Retention: Why Customer Service Is So Mediocre Today” on Thursday, March 9, at 6 p.m., at the Harrison Conference Center at Merrill Lynch. Cost: $40. The event is sponsored by the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO). Call 609-924-7975 for more information.

The seminar offers examples of client resolution/problem resolution gone bad; how to find opportunities when clients have problems; steps necessary in problem resolution; how to practice the skills necessary to enhance client retention; and how put it all together and produce “the WOW moment” with an upset client.

For Cooper it all comes down to one word: “Wow!” He says that customer service is a process, and that it has paid dividends for his company. Cooper Pest Solutions — which was started in 1955 by his father, Theodore Cooper — was nominated by Commerce Bank last year for the “Family Business of the Year Award.” Given annually by Fairleigh Dickinson University and the Roth Institute, the award is based on judges’ assessment of each business’s customer service record, community contributions, how much it gives back to their employees, and business integrity. “We were a semifinalist and the only company in Mercer County so named,” says Cooper. “There will be a new application this year, and I think we have an excellent chance of winning it.”

According to Cooper, customer service is not a superficial covering that a business puts on to make itself more appealing to potential clients, but something that is generated from its very core. “There needs to be a culture of good customer service,” says Cooper. “If you tell your employees to smile and you don’t back up everything that you do with that consistent message, it won’t work.”

At many companies the job of customer service is left to those working at the lowest rung of the company ladder. But, according to Cooper, that first face a potential client encounters often makes the difference between big business and no business. “At our company, we don’t have a receptionist,” he says. “We have a director of first impressions.” That would be Anna Andrews. “That may sound over the top, but we really mean it,” says Cooper. “At some organizations a receptionist is an entry-level position. In our organization it is absolutely not an entry-level position. We believe that it is one of the most important positions in the company.”

Another mistake businesses often make is to crack the company whip and insist employees give good customer service whether they like it or not. This is the wrong approach, says Cooper. “You constantly need to reward, recognize, and praise people for their efforts,” he says. “Sure, people have bad days, but this makes those efforts toward extraordinary customer service even more critical. That’s because if you get praised and you are taken care of, then you are more likely to do those things.”

Cooper lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised. A 1984 graduate of George Washington University, he has been married to his wife, Laura, since 1989 and they have two children, Samantha, 12, and Andrew, 8. Cooper is active in the community, is a top fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society (Delaware Valley Chapter), and has been a Rotarian since 1987. Cooper is also the author of a book on customer service, “What + How = Wow,” which was published in 2004 by Ex Libris Press (and available through the website, www.cooperpest.com, for $22, plus shipping).

But Cooper Pest Solutions is not a one-man operation. Cooper’s brother Rick serves as the company’s technical director. He earned his bachelor’s in entomology at the University of Delaware and has a master’s degree from Rutgers. “Rick is simply one of the top entomologists in the country,” says Cooper. Both Phil and Rick regularly participate in industry seminars around the county. “The NJAWBO seminar will be fun for me because it is local,” says Phil. “I speak with service industry clients, business clients, and real estate clients all over. I don’t get to speak locally that often.”

Cooper Pest Solutions — which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in business — has 54 employees, about half of whom are pest management professionals who visit residential and commercial clients to deliver pest management solutions, and can be seen driving the eye-catching green trucks around the area.

Cooper’s advice for chasing away pesky customer perceptions of poor customer service include:

Respect customers and employees. Just telling your employees to greet every customer with a smile will not achieve your goal of consistently providing the kind of good customer service that makes people come back again and again. If good customer service is always putting the customer first, it is certain disaster to place the burden solely onto your employees.

“You want to wow your customers and you need to create an environment to support that goal,” says Cooper. Providing a consistent message that lets your people know why customer service is important is essential. Providing realistic tasks with achievable goals is an important way to communicate respect for your employees that will create a supportive customer service environment.

The little things count. Create a bulletin board of customer service tips, name a top customer service employee of the week, or simply take notice of good work as it happens. “There are a lot of little things that you can do to instill the culture of good customer service,” says Cooper. “Recognize and praise people for their efforts because customer service is not always easy.”

Model. Part of creating an environment of customer service is to practice what you preach. Return phone calls promptly. Don’t pass off unpleasant tasks, such as dealing with angry customers, onto your underlings. Don’t hold meetings that extend into employees’ lunch hours. “Remember that what you communicate, plus how you communicate it, equals wow,” says Cooper.

Prompt follow-up. “In our business, our clients are always welcome to call us back if there is a problem,” says Cooper. “Any time we go on a service call the customer will receive a follow-up call from us after the work is completed. People want to know that they are being taken care of, and it’s not just follow-up calls that are important, but timely follow-ups.”

According to Cooper, good customer service is the cornerstone of a successful business. While many businesses make the mistake of underestimating its value and have trouble accomplishing it, it is not terribly mysterious either. “I would say that the secret to our success is the belief in our people and a commitment to the wow philosophy: What you communicate plus how you communicate it equals wow!”

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