Everybody has a theory about what makes one company successful. Rita McGrath, the Columbia professor who has been poring over the U.S. 1 Business Directory for the past 10 years trying to figure out how companies come and go from the economic landscape (see page 14), says that one difference is the “exciter feature,” some aspect of your company that makes people go “wow, that’s really great.”
I’m thinking of a slightly more subtle factor, one judged by its absence more than its presence. I’ll call it the “no boombox factor.”
But first let me tell you about my new Andersen replacement windows. Some of you, like me, may live in 100-plus year-old houses and fight the battle of old windows that either stick open or shut or won’t stay open at all, and with exterior storm and screen windows (usually installed sometime in the 1970s) that require biannual adjustments in the fall and spring. Tired of having heavy old windows fall on my forearms while I was wrestling with recalcitrant storm windows, I decided to get replacement windows.
So I shopped around. I knew I didn’t want cheap (relatively) vinyl or aluminum replacement windows. So I investigated Marvin windows, because every architect in Princeton, it seems, calls for Marvin windows. And I called about Andersen windows (even though no architect in Princeton ever calls for Andersen I had Andersen windows in my first house and it became a major selling point when I put it on the market).
Marvin — through a lumberyard or other supplier — would sell me or anyone else the windows, and then I would have to find someone to install them. Andersen replacement windows couldn’t be sold by anyone other than its own replacement window division. And Andersen wouldn’t sell the window to me and let me pick my own installers — only Andersen people would install the replacement windows. Normally I’d bridle at that, but given my recent difficulties finding anyone to do any work around the house, I jumped at it.
Thus began the events leading to the no boombox revelation.
First off, in a world of ever changing “standards,” Andersen is nothing but thorough and precise. When the salesman figured the price for my job, he measured all 13 windows in the house, even though some appeared to be one of either two identical sizes. After I made my downpayment, another Andersen representative came to the house, to measure all 13 windows again, even more carefully.
On the first day of installation, my friend Hank Sufnar, a retired contractor and my informal consultant on home improvement matters, came by the house to see the process for himself. While Hank and I oversaw the two Andersen installers, the Andersen sales guy showed up at the door — he just wanted to make sure the job was going right. I joked to the workers (now outnumbered by observers) that they must enjoy being the center of attention.
“We’re used to it,” they said, jokingly I assumed. Shortly after that another Andersen representative showed up — he was the official inspector and he made a point of asking me out of range of the workers if there was anything that I was concerned about. I couldn’t think of a blessed thing.
After the Andersen inspectors moved on, Sufnar and I chatted for a few minutes in the kitchen while the installers worked elsewhere in the house. Some classical music was playing quietly on my kitchen radio. At that point I suddenly noticed what was missing from this scene: The boom box. The workers were actually working in silence, with no blaring radio drowning out most conversation (and thought). Comparing this scene to the helter-skelter setting of most home improvement projects, Sufnar and I both had the same reaction. “Wow.”
Human contact of any sort these days can be an “exciter” in terms of customer service. We at U.S. 1 have gotten surprised reactions from people who call us and discover that a human being, rather than a machine, answers the call. (The corporate voice mail trees have grown so dense that at least one blogger — www.paulenglish.com — has set up a compendium of ways to reach human beings at the toll free numbers maintained by many of the largest companies.)
But the right human service, at the right time, in the right way, is still a challenging matter. The bank teller who counsels you to “have a nice day” is trying to make that human connection, but often does not succeed. And for me the salesperson who insists on visiting you in person instead of sending something in writing also fails to make a successful human connection.
As the Andersen window installers proved to me, sometimes silence is golden. Wow!