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The art of great customer service, challenging employee performance and more from the 2005 OIA Rendezvous

Our 2005 OIA Rendezvous coverage continues with summaries from four more of the 12 seminars, each taken from our reporters' notebooks. This week, we focus on Michael Longo's seminar that recommends setting expectations of employees sufficiently high to inspire top performance, an excellent seminar on giving great customer service by Kari Nehro, and two others that discuss the economy and branding.

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Our 2005 OIA Rendezvous coverage continues with summaries from four more of the 12 seminars (SNEWS® covered three in last week’s edition — read by going to:, each taken from our reporters’ notebooks. This week, we focus on Michael Longo’s seminar that recommends setting expectations of employees sufficiently high to inspire top performance, an excellent seminar on giving great customer service by Kari Nehro, and two others that discuss the economy and branding.

Creating a High Performance Mindset
Michael Longo, J. Howard & Associates, training consultant

Our reality: Economy is growing at a rapid pace, complexity of work is increasing, changes in technology are accelerating and customer expectations are rising. Does your business have the people necessary to drive it forward successfully to meet all these challenges? More importantly, does everyone in your organization have the capacity to reach his or her best performance?

Unfortunately, existing theories say that may not be the case. Using Vilfredo Pareto’s research in the 19th century, economists have theorized that the greatest results are driven by the fewest number of actions, i.e., 80 percent of high performance comes from 20 percent of workers.

Identifying the differences between employees is a factor in influencing development, because differences are how we attribute value. But Michael Longo said organizations that make judgments on potential are missing the boat and pulling the rug out from under performance. Many theorize that people have innate ability, and some people just have more intelligence than others. You are what you are. Based on what you are, that’s what your ceiling really is.

Longo said his company’s view is the opposite. Smart is something you become. Not something you are. That it has to be developed. That everyone has the capacity to learn. And, if everyone has the capacity to learn, everyone has the ability to improve, no matter what.

People need a high-performance mindset, which allows them to adapt. Normally, Longo leaves it up to organizations to define high performance, but offered these ingredients: think strategically, understand how to create efficiencies that are always beyond what the task is, work collaboratively, and be proactive, not reactive.

He added that organizations need to create an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to think outside the box and take risks, and then support them. Effective effort must be focused on challenging tasks and sustained over time to stimulate development. This creates a high performance culture and high performance mentalities among employees.  

Difficult situations — our reaction to failure and struggle — are a source of constructive feedback that should accelerate learning rather than dampen spirits. How we are treated and how we react to that treatment are in relationship to each other. Longo said we have to fail in order to learn and companies need to set up a framework of confidence. If people have an experience that allows them to use the information they get from failure and make the most out of a difficult situation, they have learned.

Retail 2010: New Rules, New Roles, New Relationships
Tom Rubel, Retail Forward, president

“It’s still the New Economy, stupid,” Rubel told the standing-room-only group of about 100. Prices of goods are going down, except automobiles and gas, and the cost of services is expected to go up. In fact, the prices of goods he forecasts will still go down more by the end of the year. Basically, he said, we are all running faster to stay in place since you must sell more to just stay even. Why? China’s effect is huge. Wal-Mart is huge. Consumer uncertainty is huge. Plus a changing of the guard is happening with baby boomers heading into retirement and “kids” taking over. Rubel described six dominant shopper strategies: Low cost replenishment (Wal-Mart), thrill of the catch (outlet and overstock type stores), speed and convenience (7-Eleven), solve a problem (Home Depot), self-expression (Zumiez), and sense of discovery (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s).

Basically, with all of these strategies and choices, innovation is especially important to retail in the areas of property, plant and equipment and will become more so to retailers in the future. Four forecasts:

1) Mass and specialty will see gains while the ground in the middle (think Sears) will struggle and perhaps die off.
2) Web sales will grow even more, reaching 25 percent a year or more.
3) Sears and Kmart can’t compete with Wal-Mart.
4) Consumer demand for “new” and “innovative” is growing; consumers expect it because they’re bored and they want excitement.

Citing Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

The Art of Giving Great Customer Service
Kari Nehro, Zingerman’s, consultant

Who ever thought a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., would be a customer service model to look up to? Zingerman’s opened its first store in 1982 — by founders who had just graduated with majors in Russian history and biology. Why not a deli? The whole point, from the type style it uses to the packaging colors to the customer interaction, is to be different, stand out and make every customer feel special. Heck, just go look at (the training and consulting site) to get a good idea.

Seems Zingerman’s has attained this (and Kari Nehro’s energy must be part of it!). One of the keys it seems are very detailed processes for interacting with customers, interacting with fellow employees, and employee empowerment, as well as lots of training for employees. Employees are taught never, ever, to say “no” to anything a customer wants if you don’t have to and to give each ownership over all that they do.

Zingerman’s ( — do take a look!) has worked hard to build a strong organizational culture with standards that teach it, define it, live it, measure it and reward it. The company’s three steps to great service are: find out what the guest wants, get it for them (accurately, politely, enthusiastically), and go the extra mile. She said customers don’t always know what they want and it’s up to the staff to engage them and find that out. They have, for example, a 10-4 rule; at 10 feet an employee MUST make eye contact, and at 4 feet they MUST greet the person. They also always read back orders to make sure it’s accurate (and they catch errors all the time), and they do it again when the person is picking it up (where they also catch errors). They are also taught to do something (that extra mile) the customer doesn’t expect — a thank you note, an extra brownie, or carrying bags to the car.

Zingerman’s also has five steps to handling complaints: Acknowledgement, sincerely apologize, take action to make it right, thank the person for giving you the opportunity to correct it, and document it. Acknowledgement is easy she said; their standard is “oh, wow,” which may sound silly, but coming out of Nehro’s mouth seemed to work. Apologies were also simple: “Oh, wow, I’m sorry” — an easy thing to say. Staff is empowered to make it right, and do role-playing in training sessions. Important is thanking the person for the opportunity to do this so they hear the complaint and the person doesn’t just complain to the world and to make sure that when the customer tells the rest of the world, the word will be positive.

Nehro and her Zingtrain staff also do consulting with other companies on customer service. Her energy is contagious.

Brand Names, Ideas and Stories: Getting the message out
Alex Frankel, Ground Level Research; author of, “WordCraft”

The room was packed for this session, with a name and description that promised all kinds of great information. Unfortunately, Alex Frankel couldn’t pull it off — he remained glued behind the lectern with his hands pasted to the sides as if nailed down, he read from a script while wiggling constantly with his body, and he rarely made eye contact. Really unfortunate since he had some good bits of info — if he had only practiced public speaking and his speech, and trusted himself to just talk.

Frankel, author of a book called “WordCraft,” which he mentioned about 10 billion times, had moved from being a journalist to becoming a naming consultant in the late ’90s when all the dot-coms and new businesses were willing to pay lots of money for this.

If you could pay attention, you pulled some nuggets about how names needed to be friendly, easy to spell and easy to pronounce (Blackberry), and that becoming somewhat generic in a category had its advantages (Velcro, Nalgene, FedEx, Teva, CamelBak, etc.) but only to a point since after a time it would then lose its value. We think there was more but we slept through them.

Despite his deeply lacking presentation and style, it was unfortunate to have him called out and ridiculed so publicly at the breakfast the next morning; we heard he was in the room and that kind of public lashing went beyond the realm of necessary. With all of the snores in his session and giggles and jokes about him afterward, we are sure he got the point. Good guy, well-meaning, decent info if he let go and talked, but horrible presentation in dire need of practice and polish.