I have been in the sales and marketing game at Van Air Systems for over thirty years. So I’ve had ample opportunities to watch how the compressed air industry has changed. When I joined Van Air there were more than twenty independent compressed air dryer manufacturers. Nearly all of these companies have either vanished or been acquired by a much larger company. A few conglomerates control most of the air drying market: SPX, Parker, Ingersoll Rand, and Atlas Copco are the Big Dogs. Yet Van Air has managed to remain a thriving and independent family-owned business. How has Van Air survived?
One would think that the huge marketing budgets, integrated product lines and name branding of the big corporations would have long since doomed Van Air. But for all the things the Big Dogs may offer, I’m convinced that the one thing they can’t get right is customer service. And this is exactly what Van Air does better than anyone else. We do what it takes to make customers happy.
When I started at Van Air, my boss was the Sales & Marketing director. He was a true character. His larger than life personality filled the room with brash Irish humor and a certain disdain for the stuffiness of the MBA business world. The word disdain is an understatement. In fact, he refused to hire anyone with a business degree. Why? Because he understood as well as anyone that while financial statements and the latest management fads may be important, they do not guarantee success. For him, the key to business success was not just closing the sale but leaving the customer with a feeling of wanting to come back. We all know that no business can be profitable for long without repeat customers.
So how do you go about providing good service to your customers? It isn’t as complicated as you may think. In essence, the goal is to develop a relationship with your customer. And the best way to do that is to remember this: “You will be judged by what you do, not what you say.” I know that seems like something from a fortune cookie. But really, providing good customer service is about simple actions. Here are some of small but important things Van Air does to make our company successful in a very competitive world.
1. We answer the phone. Van Air employs a receptionist. There are plenty of phone automation technologies, but nothing takes the place of having a real person on the other end of the line to greet incoming callers. Additionally we have a direct line for every employee. We always make sure that someone is available to answer the phone, especially in technical applications, service, sales and marketing.
2. We give timely responses. Everyone has experienced the technological black hole, where you leave endless voicemail messages and send countless follow-up e-mails, never hearing a response for days or weeks. No one likes being ignored. We make it a rule that any customer inquiry must be answered the same day. In cases where a full answer may take days to produce, we immediately acknowledge receipt of an inquiry and let the customer know that his or her need is being worked on.
3. We help out – even when there’s no immediate profit. The other day I received an inquiry from a homeowner asking about drying natural gas from a small well on his property. I spent about thirty minutes talking about the problems he’d been having with wet gas and recommended some inexpensive actions he could take to manage the problems. Most companies would categorize this as a nuisance call from a small customer without deep pockets. But when you treat people well, the word spreads. Aren’t we all looking for ways to get our company name known?
4. All customers are created equal. We treat every customer inquiry with equal importance. Whether the customer is a large natural gas company inquiring about thousands of dollars of desiccant dehydration equipment, an engineering firm asking for a review of regenerative dryer specifications, or a small auto body shop looking for a single filter, we will give these customers equal attention. Customers don’t like being pushed aside and told some other customer is more important.
6. We don’t make empty promises. There is nothing worse than lying to a customer. Reliability is one of the keys to any successful relationship, and the same applies to good customer service. Our technical applications and customer service people are always reminded to tell the customer what we can realistically do, not what he wants to hear. Actually keeping the promise you make is better than making a promise you can’t keep. Nothing annoys customers more than a broken promise.
These seemingly simple customer service truisms often take a backseat or are outright forgotten. Even at Van Air we sometimes have to remind ourselves to adhere to core principles, especially when the shops are extremely busy and everyone’s working long hours. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that good customer service is the lifeblood of any company. This is the responsibility of every employee, in every department. For any time there is a frustrated customer, you run the risk of losing a multitude of customers and future sales.