Why River Valley Bank is fRickun Cool

I had the honor and pleasure to speak to leaders from River Valley Bank yesterday in Wausau, Wisconsin. It’s a family owned bank with 18 locations and it’s a bank that the big boy’s should study and attempt to emulate. River Valley Bank is full of passionate, dedicated, intelligent, and friendly people. People who are willing to do what it takes to serve their customers in memorable ways. And, people who are willing to go out of their way to help.

This passion is evidenced by the information on their front door. Below their hours of operation, River Valley Bank has a note that read, “After Hours By Appointment.”

After Hours? Really? At a bank?

When I asked employees under what circumstances they would be willing to stay open late I received a simple answer: “When a customer asks.”

Wow. Or should I say, fRickun Cool!


Dear Waste Management: Your product might be garbage, but your customer service shouldn’t be.

My family just bought a new house – and we’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes, sadly, the displeasure) of calling to sign up for new service with a myriad of service providers. New cable, new phone, new electric service, new landscaping, new everything. It’s not our first time moving (my wife and I have lived in five houses in our ten years of marriage), but we’re hoping this will be the last move for a long time.

In all of our moves, though, this was the only time I needed to sign up for garbage collection. Where we now live, the city does not provide garbage or recycling services so homeowners are left to set up waste removal on their own. There are pretty much only two companies in my area – Waste Management and Veolia Environmental Services. This story was just too good (or, in reality, too bad) not to share.

When we moved in, we received postcards from both companies. Their pricing was very similar. Their terms were very similar. They both pick up once per week. Basically, I perceived little differentiation – in fact, the only difference I noted is that one picks up on Tuesday and the other picks up on Friday.

I asked my wife, “Which would you prefer? Tuesday or Friday?”

“Friday,” she replied.

So, that’s how I decided to hire Waste Management.

The first time I called I very carefully made my way through menu upon submenu on Waste Management’s phone system, only to be directed to voicemail greeting letting me know nobody could take my call. That took about three minutes to get to the voicemail, so I figured I’d leave a message. I never received a call back.

I tried them the next day two or three times to no avail.

Two days later, I tried calling again. I spent about ten minutes on hold before I hung up in frustration.

I often find that I receive better service by using a company’s website, so I went over to wm.com and filled out their “request quote” form. I gave them my address (which was already in their system because the former homeowner used Waste Management for eleven years), full name, phone number, and email address. About 24 hours later, I received an email from someone in their customer service department telling me that I should call (are you ready for this?) the exact same number I’ve been calling for days.

At that point, I decided that I really didn’t care on which day my garbage gets picked up – as long as it would get picked up soon! I came up with a plan. I would call Waste Management and Veolia one more time each, leave a message, and whoever called me back first would get the business.

Here’s what I happened: I called and left a message (again) for Waste Management. I then dialed Veolia prepared to leave a message when something amazing happened – they answered the phone! I was so surprised I almost left a message anyway. The guy was friendly, helpful, informative, and efficient. Three days later, I had new garbage and recycling containers at my house with Veolia’s name all over them.

I know I’m not a big customer. This service costs less than $40 a month. But there are hundreds of homeowners in my subdivision that base their buying decisions on the experiences of their neighbors. I now have a yellow-lidded garbage can on my driveway once a week. Two neighbors have asked me why I chose Veolia. When I told them my story one replied, “Yeah, Waste Management’s customer service is garbage. I think I’ll try that Veolia instead.”

So why share my story? Why gripe (a bit) and spend this time discussing something as miniscule as garbage?

Because it’s really not that miniscule. Waste Management is a $13B company. All that garbage adds up to a lot of money. But it makes me wonder how much they’re leaving on the table by not being easy to do business with.

I am always perplexed by the fact that companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to get you to call them but then treat you like crap when you do. Don’t be like Waste Management.

Here’s what they (and you) should do:

1. When a customer or prospect calls you, answer the phone. Quickly. Yes, it costs money to staff your phones appropriately. Deal with it. Or, charge more for your products and services to cover the costs. Look at the recent success of Time Warner’s Signature Home Service, in which consumers gladly pay about $50 a month more to have high-touch customer service.

2. When a customer or prospect leaves you a message, call them back. Quickly. There’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time it takes to call someone back and their excitement level for product. The sooner you call them, the better your chances are to make the sale.

3. When a customer or prospect uses your online forms to express interest in your company, reply with helpful information…not blanket form letters. If you really need to talk to your prospect before you can answer all of their questions – call them! Or email asking for more info and allow your prospect to reply via their preferred method of communication.

4. Use your brain. If the customer service rep who emailed me had looked up my address in her computer system, she would have seen that they’d already serviced my address for over a decade. I’m sure they had enough info to give me a quote and start service again the following week. But she didn’t. Instead, she asked all sorts of irrelevant questions and told me to call in with the answers. Think before you communicate.

5. If I have to call you, give me an easy way to reach you. I would have still called if the customer service rep had given me a direct number or an extension. I put my cell phone number on my business cards. Here’s a shocker: I want my customers to call me. Don’t you?

6. Don’t judge the prospect by the amount of money they’re looking to spend right now. There are additional opportunities hiding just below the surface. How did Waste Management know that I’m not a decision maker at a manufacturing company that uses a half-dozen roll-off dumpsters a month (which I am)? How did they know that I’m not the president of my homeowner’s association that is considering a group buying decision (which I am not)?

This might seem like common sense, but it seems common sense is not so common anymore (hat tip to Voltaire on that one). If you put these common sense tips into practice, you’ll become an uncommon success in your industry.

Oh, and by the way, Waste Management still has not returned my call.

A Layover from Heaven

I flew almost 150,000 miles in 2011 and it took until the very end of the year for something positive (and worthy of writing about) to happen to me. Yes, I could have written an article at least once a week about what not to do, based on the crappy service and frequent lies most airlines dish out, but I’d been on the lookout for something great to happen – something worth sharing.

After a week long family trip to Park City, Utah, my family and I returned to the Salt Lake City airport, eager to get back home for the holidays. (There were four of us, seven bags, and a connecting flight through Denver, to be exact). Sure enough, our flight was delayed. Not to worry, though – it was only delayed forty-five minutes and, with a two-hour layover in Denver, we’d be OK. And then the announcements started. Every once in awhile an announcement would let us know the flight was going to be a little later than expected. In the end, we took off almost ninety minutes late. That’s pretty normal.

Except that it wasn’t.

For a change, the gate agents told the truth. Instead of keeping us in the dark like most airlines, the women at the counter gave us frequent updates about what was happening. For a change, the gate agents were empathetic, understanding, and helpful. They made announcements specific to those people with connecting flights and explained what the options were. They calculated the revised layover times, and showed passengers how far their next departure gate was from our Denver arrival gate. For a change, they put four people at the gate to answer our questions, rather than leaving the counter empty. I was pretty impressed with what I was witnessing.

And then things got really interesting.

The gate agents proactively began making announcements with timesaving ideas. First, they made it known that we had five passengers destined for New York that would have the tightest connection. They asked that when we land, all passengers remain seated until these five passengers got off. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of that concept, but is the first time I’ve seen it happen prior to boarding the flight.

Then, the gate agents asked for anyone willing to gate-check bags to come forward and turn them in right away (this was 30 minutes before our plane had even arrived in Salt Lake City). The agents explained that anyone willing to do this would still get their bags on the jet bridge when we landed, but this process would speed up boarding by approximately ten minutes because less people would be trying to jam their carry-ons into the overhead bins. People lined up with pleasure.

When we boarded the plane, the flight attendants greeted us with smiles and expedited the takeoff by helping with bags and seat assignments. We were in the air before we knew it. The pilot came on and apologized for the delay with a compassionate tone and delivered a little something unexpected. “Because of the inconvenience, folks,” he said, “we’re going to go ahead and allow everyone to enjoy all twenty-four channels of DIRECTV with our compliments.” This might not seem like a big deal, but to the 150 passengers onboard it was pure gold.

Just before our initial descent, a flight attendant made an announcement reinforcing the earlier request to let the New York-bound passengers off the plane first. She even had those five passengers raise their hands and asked the rest of us to look around and find the five – so that we knew to let them pass. Guess what? The folks headed to New York made their flight.

So did we.

Let’s review what just happened here and make it repeatable for your company. In other words, when things don’t go as planned (maybe you don’t fly airplanes for a living, but I’ll bet you’ve had to tell your customers about a late delivery at some point), here’s what to do:

1. Be pleasant. You’re already delivering bad news; there is no need to deliver it with a bad attitude. In fact, being friendly will go a long way to earning the understanding of your inconvenienced customers.

2. Be empathetic. If you don’t care about your customer, they’re certainly not going to care about your explanations (er, excuses). Put yourself in their shoes – imagine that what’s happening to your customer is actually happening to you. Once you know how your customer feels you’ll be better prepared to help them. Which leads me to my next point…

3. Be helpful. Your customer needs your help. Your customer is depending on your help. Your customer wants your help. So…help them! Even a little bit. Your mission is to help them the best (and the most) that you can.

4. Be solution-oriented. Nobody wants to hear what you can’t do. Nobody wants to hear that “there’s nothing anyone can do.” There’s always something. Always. So focus on what can be done and deliver that right away.

5. Be consistent. Be sure that everyone on your team knows what’s happening and how you’re solving the problem. Your customer will automatically feel better if the entire company is on the same page. Just think of my story above…the gate agents, the flight attendants, the pilots were ALL focused on making things right.

6. Be thankful. Thank your customers. Thank them for their understanding. Thank them for their cooperation. Thank them for their business. Thank them for trusting you. Thank them. Thank them. Thank them. Oh, but don’t just say it. Do it. Show them that you’re thankful by serving them well and by doing your best. Go above and beyond to make them feel your gratitude.

7. Be better next time. There are two ways to be better – either by preventing the problem from happening in the future, or by being better prepared to react and respond to the problem in the future. I suggest you work on both strategies.

That’s a lot to learn on a layover, no? Put this one down in the history books, folks. An airline gave great service. They just might be on to something here!

Just in case you’re wondering what airline I flew – it was Frontier Airlines. And the crew working the flight both on the ground and in the air were top notch. If you’re planning a trip, give Frontier a try. I hope your experience is just as remarkable as mine.

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