Talking with customers key to business success

Eldon Bartelheimer and Tina Sharp are entrepreneurs who’ve been working hard to refine their business strategy and improve their respective companies’ bottom line. And while there are several key areas of focus that can help a business’ performance, none is more valuable than taking time to know your customers.

Both Bartelheimer and Sharp recently completed the 10-month Small Business Accelerator program through Everett Community College’s Corporate &Continuing Education Center. Customer service is fundamental part of the curriculum mix.

Barthelheimer owns Hill Street Cleaners with locations in Monroe and Snohomish; he’s been running the business for 21 years.

“One of my greatest takeaways from the program is to recognize that I cannot assume to know what my customers want,” Bartelheimer said.

He continued, “In order to know that your business is meeting or exceeding the customers’ expectations, you really do need to ask them. And if you learn that something was not handled correctly, be ready with a remedy.”

According to experts, service recovery — how a business responds after a customer has had a disappointing experience — can actually build greater customer loyalty in the long run if handled well. Service recovery is vital since we know that businesses don’t always get things right every time.

Hill Street Cleaners engages in an informal process of gathering feedback from customers. Staff will engage in conversation with customers and there are random follow-up calls made to the top 100 customers. In addition, the business encourages feedback about what types of services their customers would prefer.

This market research has led Hill Street to adopt a route sales model for dry-cleaning services in several key neighborhoods. The company found there is sufficient demand for a home pickup and delivery drop-off service that caters to a particular demographic.

The business was built on a business-to-customer sales channel, which one would think to be very common for a dry cleaner. But Bartelheimer is quite sure that there are growth opportunities by expanding sales through a business-to-business channel, as well, servicing catering companies and other businesses with high-volume cleaning needs. The customer type may be different, but no less important.

Tina Sharp has been president of Display Manufacturing in Everett since 1995. Display Manufacturing handles commercial accounts and works exclusively with businesses. And even though Display Manufacturing is successful, Sharp says the company would not exist without the relationships and credibility that has been earned by service to their clients.

“How do we know our customers are satisfied with their service? We use a survey feedback tool and if they don’t respond we’ll ask them directly,” Sharp said.

The company has been able to successfully weather the recession, and sales have rebounded. Even more exciting is the fact that they’re creating new positions and hiring as the demand for their products grows.

“We’ve been able to diversify our revenue streams by selling to grocery chains, medical and dental offices and even sell supply parts for other manufacturers,” Sharp said. “When a customer is not happy with our product, the company will fix it, no questions asked.”

Another notable service aspect of the company hinges on the relationship prior to a manufacturing contract. Sharp noted that even in the design phase, the company will meet with the customer and discuss potential design issues and adjustments in order to enhance quality and durability. This investment pays huge dividends when the displays are delivered.

Display Manufacturing has been servicing accounts throughout the greater Puget Sound region from Bellingham to Olympia and has established a reputation that continues to feed the company’s growth and success. “We couldn’t survive or grow if we didn’t pay attention to the customers: they’re the reason we exist,” Sharp said.

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.

Accelerator courses at Everett CC

The Small Business Accelerator signature program and the introductory Accelerator Program both run for 10 months. Courses begin this month. For more information, contact Everett Community College’s Corporate and Continuing Education Center at 425-267-0150, or go to www.everettcc.edu/accelerator.

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