Lessons in the power of customer service

In 1991, I was living in Madison, Mississippi working as a Regional Manager for WordPerfect Corporation (that will be an entirely different article). Those were incredible times of great learning that shaped much of the direction my professional life would take going forward. However, the greatest lesson I learned during that time came when I purchased a new suit. Ordinary experience, right? Well, for the most part, yes, except I have always been one who appreciates the personal service you get from a smaller men’s shop to that of a large department store.

Being new to Mississippi, I had no idea what my alternatives were, so I turned to my MicroAge sales rep, Greg Spring. Greg was a Mississippi boy, and without hesitation, he said, “Get to Iupe’s in Canton. They will take care of you. Tell them I sent you.” So, the next afternoon I took the 15-mile drive north on Highway 51 from Madison to downtown Canton, parked diagonally in the store front parking, and walked into Iupe’s.

Women’s clothing was in the front of the store, so I was quickly directed toward the back, down the ramp to the men’s suit section. The store was small and clean and the wood floor creaked as walked on it, but everything was in place and more importantly, everyone I met greeted me with a smile and was quick to ask if they could help. When I got to the bottom of the ramp, the only salesman was helping someone else, but he quickly looked up and greeted me, told me he would be with me right away, and then said “Would you like a Coke while you wait?” I said, “Excuse me?” Again he offered, “Yes, sir, would you like a Coke while I finish helping this nice lady?” I was thinking, are you kidding me? A clothing store is offering me a Coke? It felt funny, but I said sure. He politely spoke to the seamstress back behind the long row of suits and asked her to grab this gentleman a Coke. Before I knew it, I was resting comfortably on a nice wooden bench while nursing a cold Coke from an old 7oz bottle. It was perfect, and I had a strange feeling right then that I would probably be purchasing my next suit from Iupe’s.

When my turn came, the gentlemen, who was probably close to my age, introduced himself as Ray, assessed my size without inquiring, and then asked if there was some color or style I was looking for. I said no, that is was just time for a new suit. Before I could finish my sentence, he had 4 suits laid out for me to try. With every action from Ray, I felt more and more sure I would be buying a suit, but little did I know that the level of service was still on the ground floor. After a short process I settled on a nice Hart Schaffner Marx glen plaid beauty. Like any smart husband, I let him know that I would need to take it home and show the Mrs. prior to pulling the trigger. This would kill the customer service, I was sure. After all, they didn’t know me or where I lived. They only knew that Greg Spring, a previous customer, had referred me. At that point, Ray kindly let me know that it was completely understandable, zipped my intended purchase in a suit bag and handed it to me to take home. I half waited for him to take my name and address but he just wished me luck and let me know he would be there when I got back, whenever I got back. Call it pride or whatever you like, but at this point, I was so overwhelmed with the way I was treated that I was determined to out “nice” Ray. I would buy the suit for certain and maybe even a dozen ties to go with it.

I came home and explained my experience to my wife, and she had the same reaction, though she did ask to see the suit on me. I’m sure she was disappointed with how I looked, but that had nothing to do with the suit. She was accustomed to hoping that as I grew older I somehow would become better looking. Regardless, she liked the suit and gave me her okay, so I planned to return the next afternoon and make the purchase. I reflected multiple times in my appointments the next morning on how I had been treated and actually tried to turn up my genuineness with my clients. It didn’t work every time, but for the most part, I was very pleased with their reaction. While remaining as professional as I always had been, I paid closer attention to them and their conversations and was quick to be of help where I could. The bonus was, it felt right and I liked doing it.

That afternoon, I bought the suit. As it turns out, I could never out “nice” Ray. For him it wasn’t a contest. It’s like the attentive, genuine way I was treated seemed to be a part of his very character — and not for just me, but everyone that came through the door. The Iupe’s were clearly very smart about their hiring. Ray was an asset to them, and I can only assume that he was treated well. They along with their stellar employees understood the value of professional kindness and the type of endless loyalty it built.

That was almost 25 years ago, and it seems more and more like kindness and professional courtesy are a forgotten art. We assume that everyone favors the faceless but “efficient” approach of email or a text. We tend to issue our thoughts and feelings over social media with a like or a thumbs up rather than a call of congratulations or even just a “how are things”. Besides, it’s easier and take less effort. Email and the like all have their place, and I embrace them completely. But it just so happens that I’m old fashioned enough to believe that others feel the same way I do. That regardless of how big the business transaction or process may be, where appropriate, the genuine kindness and sincere interest in your client — and the personal expression of it — make a measurable difference.

Approximately 18 months after my last visit to Ray and Iupe’s (during which time I had moved back to Utah), I had occasion to return to Mississippi. And because I was back and because of my loyalty, it also became time for a new suit. I once again I made the trip to Canton, parked, walked in and down the ramp to the men’s section. Surely after this long I would be forgotten, but nonetheless, I wanted to buy a suit from my favorite store. As I reached the bottom of the ramp and looked to the suit section, a friendly voice greeted me. “Mr. Taylor, so good to see you again! Still 46 regular, I see.”

Thanks, Ray.

I bought the suit.