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When Gary Comer founded Lands' End Inc., he wasn't looking to become a multi-millionaire. The 33-year-old advertising copy writer, discontent with his job for an international advertising agency, wanted to start a business that related to his hobby: sailboat racing.
The first full-color Lands' End catalog, with 30 pages of sailing gear and two pages of clothing, was introduced in 1975. But the company's focus gradually shifted away from sailing gear and more toward clothing and accessories.
Since then, Lands' End has grown into one of the nation's most successful mail order companies. With warehouses and customer service centers in England, Germany and Japan, Comer's brainchild generated more than $1 billion in catalog sales in 1997. It employs 5,700 people worldwide throughout the year and 8,400 during the Christmas season.
Lands' End has developed a loyal clientele because the company offers quality merchandise at prices that represent honest value to its customers. Its catalogs provide detailed product descriptions that tell customers how fabrics are selected, how garments are constructed and why they will wear better and longer than similar garments sold by competitors.
Equally important to the company's success is its customer service philosophy: "What's best for the customer is best for Lands' End." Here are some tips from Lands' End on building a great customer service philosophy:
- Do everything you can to make your products better. Improve material and add features and construction details others have taken out. Never reduce the quality of a product to sell it at a lower price.
- Price your products fairly and honestly. Don't participate in the common retail practice of inflating a product's price just so you can set up a bogus sale and let your customers think they're getting a bargain.
- Work with reputable vendors. Buy materials from the best suppliers and vendors, and work with manufacturers that are efficient and cost-conscious. This way, you can sell merchandise at lower prices than your competitors can.
- Ensure product quality. Produce garments to your own quality standards rather than generally accepted specifications. Test all fabrics in your own laboratory and use real people, not models, to develop consistent sizing standards.
- Unconditionally guarantee everything. Your merchandise return policy might read: "If you're not entirely satisfied with an item, return it to us at any time for an exchange or a refund of its purchase price."
- Help customers understand how to use your products. Have specialty shoppers available to assist customers with sizing questions, gift suggestions and wardrobe coordination.
- Go the extra mile for your customers. Send your customers fabric swatches so they can feel a fabric's texture and see its color. If a customer needs additional buttons, loses a belt or needs a piece of luggage repaired, take care of it--free of charge.
Lands' End provides all these services--and others--free of charge. If a child loses a mitten from Lands' End the same season it was purchased, the Lost Mitten Club will replace the mitten at half the price of a pair and mail it for free. Pants are hemmed free of charge and delay a customer's order by just one day.
- Make it easy for your customers to do business with you. Establish toll-free, 24-hour phone lines so customers can place orders at their convenience. Or let customers order directly off the Internet at your Web site. Lands' End's Web site is at http://www.landsend.com .
- Hire the best sales and customer service personnel you can find, and offer product, customer service and computer training. Lands' End sales representatives receive 80 hours of such training when they're hired and 24 hours of additional training each year thereafter.
- Ship orders quickly. Ship orders for in-stock merchandise the day after a customer's order is received. Ship orders for out-of-stock merchandise the day the merchandise arrives at your warehouse.
Lands' End's commitment to ship customer orders promptly was put to the test during the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike in August. To switch customer deliveries from UPS to Priority Mail via the U.S. Postal Service, the company converted its distribution system into a "mini post office." Equipment used to sort customer packages for mailing into 10 UPS hub locations--which meant an average of 40,000 packages per day--was reprogrammed to sort them into an elaborate ZIP code breakdown. Shipping department staffers then organized the sorted packages onto pallets by hand, according to ZIP code. The packages were loaded on trucks hired by Lands' End and delivered to major post office hubs in cities as far away as Denver and Philadelphia. To reassure customers about when their packages would arrive, the company posted average delivery times on its Web site. Most customers received their packages within a week after placing their orders.
You don't have to be a giant direct-mail merchant like Lands' End to offer top-notch customer service. Even with a limited budget and a small staff, you can stand out among your competitors and develop long-lasting and rewarding customer relationships. Start by putting these key Lands' End customer-service principles to work at your company:
- Stand behind your product or service unconditionally. If a customer isn't satisfied with his purchase, replace it--free of charge, offer an in-store credit or refund his money. If you provide a service, guarantee client satisfaction. Revise a project if it falls short of the customer's expectations. If that's not possible, bill the client for your out-of-pocket expenses only, not your time.
- Hire the most qualified employees you can. They might be interns, part-time college students or full-time, permanent employees. Train them to know your products or services, to greet customers in a friendly manner and to take all the time necessary to help a customer place an order.
- Be accessible. You might not have the money to operate toll-free phones 24 hours a day. But when you're at work, answer a customer's phone call personally or talk with the customer when he visits your store. Give your customers your fax number and e-mail address, and encourage them to communicate with you.
- Give added value. Offer complimentary gift wrap or free delivery for orders placed in your community. Establish a "buy nine, get one free" program.
If you run a service business, give a client a free one-hour consultation when he or she refers a new client to you.
Carla Goodman, a devotee of mail order shopping, can attest to Lands' End's superior customer service.
Tips From Business Start-Ups
1. Operate on the premise that the customer is always right. Never argue; instead, give the customer the benefit of the doubt. You'll have a devoted customer for life.
2. Be honest and forthright. Never oversell your product's capabilities or promise what you can't deliver. If you make a mistake, quickly admit it and resolve the situation.
3. Solicit customer suggestions and act on them. Give customers a "report card" they can fill out when they come to your store or receive a delivery. Ask how you can improve your service, billing procedures, communication and other factors influencing your customer relations.
4. Make your customers feel important. Train employees to greet customers by name, whenever possible, when they enter your business. Teach them to recall the customer's most recent order and suggest other products or services the customer might enjoy or that will enhance his work or personal life.
5. Encourage negative feedback. Thank your customers even when they criticize your business. Complaints give you some of your best opportunities to learn more about your products or services from your customers' point of view.
6. Maintain accurate customer records. No customer wants to receive an invoice with his name misspelled or a bill for the wrong amount. These little errors create concern about your ability to service his needs.
7. Educate your customers. Employees can demonstrate new products or hold workshops for customers to test products. You'll add customer value and give yourself a way to test customer reactions to new products or services.
8. Call key customers periodically. Don't sell them anything; just express interest in what they're doing. When they need to make a purchase, they'll come to you.
9. Be sure your policies regarding orders, returns and refunds are clearly stated and easily understood.
10. Smile and say "thank you" with each customer's order. Send a handwritten thank-you note to each customer who makes a major purchase.
11. Empower all your employees to handle complaints. Nothing is more aggravating than being put on hold or having to wait for a customer service representative to address your problem. If each employee has the power to handle complaints, customers never have to wait to get their problems solved.
12. Be polite. This may sound like common sense, but it's easy to forget when an angry customer starts yelling at you. No matter how upset customers get, always show them respect. Teach your employees to do the same.
13. Make your employees happy and they will, in turn, make your customers happy. Thank them often and in many different ways, from awarding bonuses for well-done projects to throwing parties--or just saying "thank you" to a hard-working employee.
14. Keep in touch. When customers call, they want answers; don't make them wait. If you can't afford the staff required to answer phones 24 hours a day, at least be sure to respond to customers' calls promptly. Doing so lets them know you consider their business important.
15. Hold meetings about quality. Encourage all employees to come up with ideas for improving customer relations, and reward them for great ideas.
16. Celebrate your successes. Taking time to enjoy the goals you achieve will help keep you and your business on track. Always keep your values and your goals in mind. Reward people who are exceeding your standards for excellence.
17. Give "bad" customers the benefit of the doubt. If you've decided to give the customer what he wants--even when you think he or she is wrong--do it cheerfully. The sacrifice could earn you their respect--and their repeat business.
18. Set a good example. You can argue about whether or not the trickle-down theory works with economics, but never doubt that it works with a company's morale. If you tell your employees they must treat customers with respect--but you don't show your employees respect--you can be sure your customers aren't getting respect, either.
Lands' End Inc., http://www.landsend.com