I once had a reporter from CBS call me who wanted some background stories or ideas of companies that went beyond the normal customer service experience that we are used to. She then said, “Hal, don’t give me the usual examples, I would like something that is newer or fresher.”
Here is the problem: I really could not come up with anything that stood out. Can you? What happened? Have we become so accustomed to average or poor customer service that we accept it and say “Oh well, that is the way it is.”
This is bothersome on so many levels that it reminds me why I started a highly specialized customer service satisfaction firm in the early 1980s.
Let me back up to the mid-1970s when I had three cars stolen, all General Motors Oldsmobiles. I was getting fed up with going to get to my car and it just wasn’t there. I thought this was getting a little old, so I decided to buy a car that would not be stolen. In those days, Honda was selling a fraction of the cars that it sells today. In fact, Japanese quality was thought of as inferior to American-built cars then.
I bought a small Honda Prelude. My main reason was that it was cute and no one would want to steal it. I was correct. After I bought the car, something happened that was life-changing and it set a new course for my next occupation.
After my first service on the vehicle, the dealership called me to see if I was satisfied with the service performed and if the people were accommodating. Wow. I was blown away someone called me to see if I was happy. That was radical and definitely unique in those days.
I called the dealership and asked to speak to the owner and thanked him for showing their customers they truly do care.
The owner explained how they had a friend making the calls for them to check on the satisfaction level of new and used car customers. Now, I felt as though I got hit over the head with a sledgehammer. I have always wanted my own business, but I did not know what it would be.
I was motivated to start something that was mine and I had a few simple rules: little start-up cash (under $20,000), nothing that I would have to manufacture and all my eggs in smaller baskets. In other words, do not try to get one customer, instead spread your business in many smaller customers, so you don’t go out of business if you lose that big one.
The concept fit all my rules and I figured there are 92 major cities in the United States, so I could eventually open 92 offices, build the company up and then sell it within 10 years, so I can retire before I was 40 years old. The concept was simple and sound. Call the companies’ customers and ask them three to five questions to determine their level of satisfaction and then report the results to the client.
The business plan worked and my company, Direct Opinions, started to grow at a perfect pace. Before I knew it, I had a half-dozen offices throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was hard work because in those days, the auto manufacturers were not doing this type of telephone survey and I literally had to get one new car dealer at a time. Along with the dealership network, I also focused on making calls for large independent retailers and other related industries.
To assist my office and support staff, a wonderful thing happened in 1983. IBM just introduced its first personal computer, the XT, and I saw how this new technology could run my business and save me an immense amount of time when it came to the paperwork, bookkeeping, reports and a sophisticated database.
In 1990, two investors that wanted to buy me out, build up the company to other markets and then sell the newer and larger company to a venture capitalist firm approached me and eventually fulfilled their dream as well.
Today, customer follow-up is a much larger industry than just a couple of start-up firms like mine in the early 1980s. It is, in many cases, the yardstick for performance standards used in industries such as hospital, retail and automotive.
I feel like we started a new industry and we were there in the beginning before it became truly big business.