The “Zeke” Method

By Matt Anthony

In my short time on the globe, I have acknowledged three indisputable facts:

  • My wife makes the best fudge known to humankind.
  • A Cleveland team may not win a championship in my lifetime.
  • Customer service sucks.

Since the initial two don’t necessarily affect, first-hand, our chosen vocation, I thought I’d dwell on the third. (Although I do notice that when the Indians take 2 out of 3 from the Yankees, my work does seem to project an added amount of warmth and sizzle!) For reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, my encounters with the general populace lately have magnified the customer-service experience (or minimized it; however you choose to look at it). Microphone issues, computer dilemmas, cable-company problems... all of them have reared their ugly heads lately (and I’m not counting the various run-ins with everyone from clerks at the big-box stores to servers at my favorite brewpub).

Diminished expectations. Feeling comfort in the acceptance of mediocrity. Monsignor Leonard J. Fick, one of my old seminary instructors, as well as one of my all-time academic heroes, touched on these things during his commencement speech at our graduation almost 30 years ago. Some of those thoughts came flying back at me this weekend in, of all places, the grocery market.

I was waiting in line to pay for a few things after I left the gym on Friday evening. In front of me was a man who also purchased some items, including a bottle of wine. There were two young men working our line: a tow-headed, burly kid who operated the register, and a shorter, more slender one who did the bagging. I’m guessing that it must be the status quo these days for workers in these positions to have as little dialogue with customers as possible. Not that I have an obsessive interest in wanting to engage in conversation much past the standard, “I’m fine. How are you” or “Yes, I have my rewards card” anyway. But it is nice to know that, although this person probably isn’t making much money, he or she is relatively pleased that I didn’t choose the competing supermarket down the street.

These two young men, although dressed smartly in white shirts and black ties, seemed to have, like most their age, the personality of a 2 x 4. Fine. I’m used to it. Especially at this store, which seems to only employ people who have as the “Objective” on their resume: “To remain in a catatonic state for as much of the waking hours as humanly possible.” Although they offered both me and the gentleman in front of me no greeting, they did, however, talk amongst themselves. I know how long they worked yesterday, when they’re getting off work today, and that they both dislike the chubby girl in the red hair two registers down.

As I mentioned, the customer in front of me had purchased a bottle of wine, which the bagger-boy had placed in a separate plastic bag. However, the man left the area after taking his change and forgot to pick up that bag. Both boys saw this. Now, in most countries where its citizens have a pulse, the normal decorum, I’m assuming, is that one of these young men, more than likely the slim one with the black hair and peach-fuzz on his upper lip, would suddenly say something profound, such as, “Sir, you forgot this!”

But, no. After all, we live in a world of diminished expectations. We assume and expect mediocrity. These two kids in their wrinkled white shirts and black ties joked to each other about how long it would take for this customer to suddenly realize that he’d forgotten his bottle of wine. “Did he turn around yet?” asked the more muscular, blond-headed kid who was scanning my rewards card. The other laughed, “Nope. Still going.”  The blond-headed kid sneered and murmured, “Whatever.” But, the customer must have suddenly realized what he’d left behind. “Oh, here he comes!” cried out the bagger. “He almost got out the door, dude!” The customer returned to the area, mumbled something apologetically (as if he had something for which to apologize!), and was handed the bottle by the bagger-boy. This prompted a chorus of chuckles, as he slithered away.

Walking to my car, I was still trying to digest what I’d just witnessed. And as I drove home, I was a bit irate with myself, that I didn’t write down their names, that I didn’t say anything. I shared the story with Donna, and I made a mental note to locate both of them the next time I was in the store, to try to find out who they were. I see a framed picture of the store manger hanging up as I walk in each time, and I’ve seen him there in the store sometimes when I’ve visited. I thought about saying something to him the next time.

In our Voiceover and Imaging businesses, and in our dealings with clients at the stations for whom we work, do we resemble the kid behind the register? How about bagger-boy?

Kids texting while pushing the buttons on the register. Cashiers talking amongst themselves, completely oblivious to the customer in front of them. A member of the Geek Squad looking at the time on his phone and exclaiming, “An hour and a half more and I’m outta here.” It’s standard fare in most places. Consequently, the commendable customer service today really stands out. If you can find it. I suppose it’s the continuing sign of the times. In exchange for “made in China” prices, we sacrifice that warm, gooey feeling of being appreciated and wanted as a customer.

Although he didn’t hold a Ph.D. like Monsignor Fick, my grandfather was a good deal like him. Carmon “Zeke” DiBacco owned and operated a gas station with his brother in West Virginia for nearly a half-century. Aside from being impeccably honest, he, like Fick, was down-to-earth, jovial, caring, and not outwardly demonstrative about, what surely was, his strong faith. As a businessman, he held to several strictly-defined laws that made him a trusted, well-known, and beloved person in his community, and I can summarize them this way:

give the customer the benefit of the doubt

don’t make excuses if you’ve done something wrong

do what you say you’re going to do

then, go a little bit above and beyond that

I’ve seen my grandfather allow regular customers who have fallen on hard times to run up large amounts of credit, until they were able to pay it back. I’ve seen him give free gas to a family of 9 people in a station wagon who needed to get to Mississippi, but claimed to only have enough money to get them through the mountains of Virginia. But I’ve also seen him tell customers that a damaged tire couldn’t be repaired on the spot “because my grandson is here and we’re getting ready to have dinner.” I’ve also seen him take the ice-delivery man (yep, they delivered ice in huge blocks back then!) behind the building, away from others, to lecture him about being on time, because his customers expected to be able to purchase their ice, especially on hot days.

Try to do what you promise you’ll do. Don’t give excuses. Work with the customer to make the experience one that they’re going to remember.

Doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? I wish somebody would have explained these core concepts to the people who owned the bed-and-breakfast we stayed at recently. Because the main house was over-booked (over-booking a 1200-room hotel during a convention is something I can understand, I suppose... but how do you over-book a 7-room B&B?), we were placed in a nearby cottage that the owners also operated. Beautiful location. Idyllic scenery. And more filthy than any motor-lodge I’ve ever stayed in. No toilet paper. An uncleaned bathroom from the previous guest. Grease on the plates in the kitchen cabinets. Light bulbs missing.

After confronting the owners, the excuses began to roll out. Everything from “Well, my daughter stayed there over the weekend and she usually cleans before she leaves,” to “Our water down here in the South is just different than up there. Everyone’s toilets look like that.”

We get used to accepting mediocrity because we’ve been trained to have diminished expectations.

What are we doing at our respective stations, or in our businesses, to turn the momentum the other way? “Well, I offer a quality product,” you say. “We put our promos together using Pro Tools. Plus, all of our studios use only Brauner microphones.” But sometimes it’s not about the product. Our customers expect it to sound good. They anticipate the rate being affordable.

Are you returning a phone call in a reasonable amount of time? If you’re scheduled to do a Source-Connect session with a client at 10 a.m., are you dialing in at 10:10, or at 9:55? Did you drop a quick email to a client because you saw that his favorite team just moved into first-place by a half-game? Have you dropped a quick note to a client who you haven’t heard from in awhile? Or, after reading All Access, did you fire off a quick message to someone who just got canned, offering help, even if you don’t know exactly how you can?  

And a quick word about email: even if your customers aren’t particularly adept with their spelling prowess, make sure you are! Do you have a subject line? Do you address that person with their name at the beginning of the note, or do you just immediately type a response? Is the font legible? Is your “signature” longer than the average note? (Is it longer than the average sequel to War and Peace?)

I’m not suggesting that you open a vein because someone is paying you $150.00 a month to be the voice for their station. And the axiom “the customer is always right” has its critics.  But I am in favor of an approach that tilts in the favor of the person or client who’s demanding your expertise, and certainly one that’s far more accommodating than the approach used that says that it’s acceptable for a gentleman to have to drive several miles home before he realizes that he neglected to pick up his bottle of wine, or one that essentially says, “I think it’s cool that your guest-bathroom resembles the look of a stall in the men’s room after a game at Cleveland Browns Stadium!”

I think customer service should rock.

I’ve learned that sometimes you can’t bend over backwards for someone. Sometimes you can’t voice a promo at 4:40 in the afternoon because it needs to air at 4:50. Sure, you can try, but sometimes it can’t happen. I’ve learned that I’m very capable of carrying a portable recording device with me on vacation, but I don’t. What I can do, though, is promise to put that client’s project on top of the stack when I return, and then do my best to try to make sure that it happens. I’ve learned that while I don’t appreciate a client calling me (repeatedly) on a Friday evening at 9:30, demanding that I find a way to leave a ballgame I was attending with my brother so that I could do a correction to a promo that had been posted days earlier, I can offer to help out early on a Saturday morning before my weekend gets started.

Do your clients expect you not to give them the benefit of the doubt? Does an account executive anticipate infuriating you because some sponsor dropped out of a promotion and the tag needs to be re-cut? Are you known as the person who won’t do it, as opposed to finding a workable solution in order to eventually get it done?

Servers asking, “Do you need change back with this?” when scooping up the payment for my check. A computer-builder charging me again to load software that had already been paid for when they loaded it the first time, prior to the death of the system’s hard-drive. A sales representative of a company that builds microphones who waits three months to respond to an email regarding an update. The horror stories abound. That’s why I like Mike Holmes, the Canadian contractor, whose motto of “Make It Right,” should be tattooed on the forearms of every person involved in the customer service industry. And on mine.

But while it’s easy to point out the obvious tragedies, let me briefly mention Ron Marhofer GMC in North Canton, Ohio, the dealer who recently sold me a used Saturn. I had been trading emails about a particular vehicle with my salesperson, Marcus, and we scheduled a time to meet. When I arrived, there he was. He offered me a Diet Coke, shared some remarks about the car we were interested in, and reeled off a bit of small-talk about the Indians. We then drove the car, returned to the dealership, walked around it, learned about some of its features, and had some questions answered.

Then, we returned to his office and got down to business. He essentially said this: We don’t haggle here. The price is fair. Our reputation is solid, and we’d love to have you as our customer. I can knock a hundred dollars off this car, but that’s it. Here’s the Carfax, and I’d be happy to go over it with you.

I was a bit stunned. I’m not a good negotiator, and it’s simply against my religion to buy at sticker-price. But I knew what I wanted, I’d done a good deal of research, and the price was a fair one. Even if I truly didn’t get a good deal, I wanted to at least feel like I did, like I’d won.

“I can toss in a couple of oil changes, and as long as you have our dealer-frame around your back license-plate, free car washes are yours as long as you own the car.”

I nodded, and, honestly, I could find nothing else to say.

“Have I answered all your questions, Matthew?” I nodded that he had.

“Is there anything else you’d like to know about this vehicle?” I shook my head.

He leaned forward on his desk. “Would you like to buy the car?”

He asked it with such a matter-of-fact tone, with such Jedi-Warrior mind-control effectiveness and with such no-nonsense deductive reasoning that I had no choice but to mumble, “Sure.” He then replied, “Awesome!” stood up and shook my hand. “Our experience during this total process is going to last about 45 minutes.” And sure enough, in less than an hour, I was driving away in a much-needed used vehicle.     

 The “Zeke Method.” I like it. Deliver what you promise, respect the customer, be realistic, go 100% and maybe a little more. I’ll think of it when I head to the supermarket again this evening in my used Saturn. Donna will need more fudge-making provisions, and it will give me a chance to listen to the ballgame on the way. I know I’m probably not going to get a “hello” or a “may I help you with something,” but I will look for that manager while I’m there. And if do have to listen to the cashiers recap their karaoke experience from the night before, I’m hoping we dispense with one thing: those stupid “reward cards.” They clog up my key-ring, and they never make my bill go down. I’d pay a few pennies more, anyway, if I received a “How are you today, sir?” instead.