There once was a time, when employees worked in a particular industry, for a particular company, through the boom and lean times. This led to a greater knowledge of what needed to be done, how to do them, and an overall confidence had by both employers and those that worked to grow the employer’s business. Work was a “life thing”. Having a job meant being a part of a family as much as it meant providing for your family. My father was one of those employees that knew this more than most. He worked for the same company for fifty years.
Most of that time was spent as a salesman. But as I would learn years later, salesman for my dad meant more than offering products for other companies or businesses to purchase. He was paid by a building supply distributor, but really, he worked for those he called on. He taught me, over the years, a lot about people. He taught me about hard work. He taught me about being creative with regard to how we, as a family, should consider others. But the lesson that has stuck with me over the years, and the lesson that has been on my mind of late, is the Lesson of the Prefinished Trim.
Most hardware and big box stores sell this product now. It is made from polystyrene and has a faux wood laminate which simulates a stained finish. When it was first introduced at his company, the product featured different profiles and different stain simulations. The distributor sold it by the carton, Dad’s customers sold it by the piece. Year after year, my father would bring this or that spiff, award, or incentive home from the sales of this molding. It was not until later in my raising, when I was able to travel with him, that I learned the secret to his success.
As I was set loose to count bolts or compare the volumes of different weights of nails (busy work), he tirelessly removed the sticks of trim and stacked them into racks the manufacturer supplied to the dealers. He organized the new inventory. He straightened the older pieces and resorted the misplaced items. He trained the employees to do the same, and he took an inventory and offered advice on how much that week’s order should include. As I wandered around the aisles of rural hardware stores, finding whatever adventure a child finds, I noticed something else.
He knew everyone at the store. Not just the owner, not just the purchasing agent, but everyone at the store. He spoke with them about their child’s basketball games, he knew if they were struggling (I suspect he helped out as well), and he showed a real concern for those he saw each week. He told and listened to jokes. He offered building materials for sale, but he gave of himself, at no charge. If a customer of his customer had a problem, it was his problem. If his customer needed help reading blueprints, he stayed late to help read blueprints. And if there was ever any trouble with that prefinished molding, he got it handled.
I am sure a lot of people can say this about their father, but I have never met anyone that did not care for my father. I have met several people that without hesitation, would say they love my father. As far as customer service is concerned, he taught me a lesson with prefinished trim. As far as living goes, he taught me about how to treat people more than any other teacher I have heard, read, or seen. And it is my suspicion, that the two, customer service and treating people with compassion, are not unrelated. I fact, I suspect you should not pretend to do the first, if you cannot master the latter.
My dad has since retired, but still visits his friends from time to time. In different cities, with little reason for him to travel there, but for the former customers whose lives he touched. He does not read blue prints, he does not straighten or count inventory. He probably shares a cup of coffee or a meal and travels back home. The Lesson of the Prefinished Trim is not about technique. It is not about product placement. The lesson actually is not about the execution of customer service in any measurable sense of the word. The lesson is that relationships, and customer loyalty, are often intertwined. It happens over time. It happens with steady acts of true concern for the customer, every day, every week, every encounter.