Talk to your customers and out-service the competition

One of my businesses is TranquilEase. I hold a patent for a portable Heated Stadium Cushion with a frame, patent #7438356, a very nice product.

It was perfect for those frozen tundra games at Lambeau Field. But, alas, the NFL has prohibited it – along with purses and backpacks – starting this year. The Heated Stadium Cushion will continue to be welcome, however, at that interminable, boring, cold spring track meet where your kid competes in two events (one at the beginning and one at the end of the five-hour meet, of course).

I also import other products from a reliable factory in China where we’ve manufactured for many years.

TranquilEase is truly a mom-and-pop operation, except there is no “mom.” It’s just me. So I do the product design and produce the package photography (you might notice a model or two who look remarkably like my children).

I awkwardly Skype at weird hours with my Chinese counterparts, manage the sales reps, and navigate customer service. We sell our products through premium catalog retailers such as Frontgate, Sharper Image, Hammacher Schlemmer (“America’s Oldest Catalog,” by the way), Amazon and regional retailers such as Fleet Farm and Blain’s Farm & Fleet.

Some of the most interesting and rewarding experiences in this venture involve my work as the TranquilEase customer service rep, especially during the holiday season. I handle dozens of customer calls per week from November through February, which then gratefully slow down during the spring.

Dealing directly with customers is a wonderful, educational and – believe it or not – always a fun experience! Here are a few takes:

1. Most customers are honest.

So honest, in fact, we no longer require proof of purchase to handle a warranty claim. If my customer correctly identifies the place of purchase with an approximate date, I happily handle the warranty issue without any further proof required. To date, I have never been burned.

One of our value-priced heated car seat cushions discolored the upholstery in the Honda Accord of an Iowa customer. I offered her $500 to repair her car seat. She refused my first offer. I stayed silent and waited to get held up for more money. Instead, she said $500 was way too much, and $100 was more than adequate.

2. Most customers want to help us be a better company.

I’ve had customers offer to rewrite our product instructions – written by me, of course. I’ve had customers help us with product design.

We recently introduced a premium auto seat cushion product retailing for $150. A gentleman from Florida called to tell me it didn’t work correctly in his Porsche convertible. I really wanted to ask him why he’d put that product (albeit a fine product) in a Porsche convertible, but instead I asked him if he wanted a refund. He said, “No way!”

He loved that car seat cushion. He really wanted it to work for his Porsche convertible.

He wanted it to work so badly he brought our seat cushion to a sewing shop and had the seamstress move the straps. He reinstalled our premium seat cushion in his premium car and graciously sent me some photographs so I could incorporate the changes in the next version of this product.

This experience is not unusual. We receive all sorts of product improvement ideas from our customers, and we’ve incorporated some of them into our product designs.

As a small company, we don’t need and probably can’t afford fancy marketing consultants or product redesign engineers or customer focus groups. We accomplish our product improvement and evolution in good part just by working directly and honestly during everyday customer service calls.

3. Different demographics require different communication channels.

Although we usually handle customer service over email, the “65 and older” crowd still prefers to call a toll-free number and talk on the phone, which is fine by me. I have an 800 line that comes directly to my iPhone. It costs $12.95 per month from “Line2.”

I have to admit, phone communication is time consuming, but it is necessary and critical to servicing this particular group of important, loyal and enthusiastic customers. I have had to learn and must continually remind myself to SLOW DOWN when talking to customers on the phone, especially our older customers.

The occasional, real time conversations with these customers are productive and humbling lessons for me, and they help make our little company a better little company.

4. Canadians are just as nice and honest as Americans. No particular comment here, just an observation…eh?

Remember, I am not just talking about an online phenomenon here, either. Whether you’re the CEO of a B2B manufacturer, a retailer, or someone who runs a professional services firm, I highly recommend you talk to your customers, and not just your customer’s CEO or senior executive. Take some customer service calls every month.

Or better yet, do a few customer service calls as well as a few accounts receivable collection calls every month. A/R problems are excellent barometers of product or customer service issues – and that’s probably a great topic for another article.

As a consumer, I also like to shop online. I would say our household likely spends more money on Amazon than anywhere else. But I am blown away by the proliferation of other mom and pop online retailers and am impressed at the level of customer service I receive from them when I shop there.

It’s like the old Internet joke: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog!” The small retailers know they compete with Amazon for delivery times and sometimes just can’t win that battle. But they can and do beat Amazon on live customer service seven days a week.

I ordered the wrong part for my BMW Motorcycle from Jerry Finley at The Pirates Lair, whose slogan is “Exotic Parts for Exotic Motorcycles.” When I contacted him, Jerry already knew which bike I owned, emailed me saying “I might not be bright enough to be his customer” (good sense of humor which I appreciate!), but said he’d send me the correct part, unless I’d prefer to be frustrated.

Great customer service!

I do worry sometimes that mom-and-pop companies, like TranquilEase and other small companies I shop with and admire, will not be able to compete with Amazon and other large online retailers. But I also believe it still comes back to mining the data we small companies can receive directly, and usually easily and happily, from our customers and then using that data to both improve our products and “out-service” the mega retailers.

For me, it’s been an incredible education. I’ve learned more about our products, our documentation, our third-party fulfillment company, and of course, our customers. It’s made me a better customer service rep and a better business person. It’s made TranquilEase a better company.

And it has reinforced my belief in America, American-style enterprise and capitalism, and ultimately the greatness of doing business with Americans, including those Americans north of our U.S. borders. n

John Howman is a serial entrepreneur, business and community leader. He has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for TEC, a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at His wife, Laura Gille, contributed to this column.

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