In party rental, great customer service is a lot more than a smile and a thank-you.
“It ranges from the delivery personnel offering to set up a few chairs and tables if asked with no charge to responding to a major problem due to weather-related challenges at a tented event,” says Bick Jones, general manager of Ducky-Bob's Party & Tent Rentals of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. “It can be trying to collect a past due receivable and keep the customer because of the way you treat them, or recovering missing party rental equipment when the client insists they did not lose it — only to find it in a closet a week later.”
Not only does good service keep current customers, it can win new ones. “Our sales consultants often visit the event to ensure that everything is set up right and that all [the client's] expectations have been met,” says John Schlueter, vice president of Karl's Party Rental, Oak Creek, Wis. Not only does this practice make the customer happy, but “you never know who attends the events and therefore could generate additional business,” he adds.
As Rusty Parr, president of Newhall, Calif.-based A V Party Rental, puts it, “Customer service is the difference between a party or event rental store and a place where you rent tables and chairs.”
GETTING THE GOOD ONES
Many party rental operators screen job applicants for customer service skills. Interviewers at Cleveland-based Event Source describe different scenarios that would-be workers will likely face to try to get a feel for the applicant's concern for the customer. “You can teach someone to accomplish tasks,” notes president John Bibbo Jr. “But you cannot teach them to be caring individuals.”
Once good hires are on board at Ducky-Bob's, they undergo rigorous training. Not only are new hires sent to seminars, but the company brings in educators who listen to conversations with customers and provide feedback. Cards with reminders to smile and to thank the customer dangle from the ceiling in the sales, accounting and routing departments.
To meet myriad customer demands quickly, many operators cross-train employees. “There are some issues that only a manager or owner can answer to,” Parr says. “But in the majority of instances, everyone should be ready to back up his co-worker.”
“We stress exposure to as many areas as possible,” adds Dan Nolan III, general manager of Tents Unlimited, Atlanta. “We may not own high-end lighting or a valet service, but our salespeople understand how it is supposed to work.”
Many operators make good customer service pay. “Key operational areas such as the dishroom, laundry, order desk and routing have their monthly incentive pay indexed to the level of complaints we receive on service or equipment,” Jones notes.
To solicit that all-important customer feedback, Tables & Chairs of Atlanta enters all clients who return surveys in a monthly drawing for a folding-leg table. Owner John Robinson then makes copies of customer compliments and tucks them into employees' pay envelopes each week.
Several operators admit that despite their efforts to instill great customer service, they have a few staffers with great technical skills but poor people skills. “They don't have the patience that some customers require,” Parr says. “But it's hard to replace their knowledge and expertise.” To compensate, their direct customer interaction is limited. These employees “are aware of their shortcomings, so they avoid difficult situations,” Parr adds.
But even the most diplomatic employee may not be able to win over an angry customer. “We rely on a team approach to service,” Jones notes. “If an employee senses that a customer is not satisfied with our effort to remedy, that person can hand off that customer to someone else — usually someone who is more experienced.”
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Some operators believe that employees are better attuned to customer service in a down market. “Fish are harder to catch in winter,” Robinson says.
And despite complaints about young slackers, most operators think the caliber of employees in general is better today than it was 10 years ago.
“It is not because the people we employed 10 years ago were sub-par; it is because our industry is more attractive now,” Nolan says. “Organizations like ISES, NACE and ARA have been instrumental in lending much more credibility to our industry as a whole. There are certification programs and achievement recognition avenues that were not available 10 years ago. All of these organizations are working together and obviously see the tremendous potential for growth in the special event industry.”
AV Party Rental, 818/362-8389; Ducky-Bob's Party & Tent Rentals, 972/381-8000; Event Source, 216/901-0000; Karl's Party Rental, 414/831-7000; Tables & Chairs, 770/458-2757; Tents Unlimited, 770/919-8896 See this story on the Web at www.specialevents.com.
What, Me Worry About Customers?
If you think you don't need to train your staff in the importance of good customer service, think again. In an article published last year in Workforce magazine, researchers polled thousands of job applicants at several large North American grocery store chains and found:
45 percent said they believe that customers should be told when they are wrong.
46 percent said that customers have to follow the rules if they are going to help them.
34 percent said they would prefer to work behind the scenes rather than with customers.
13 percent said they believe that if customers don't ask for help, then they don't need it.
10 percent said they do not feel it is necessary to help a customer if the request falls outside their area of responsibility.
6 percent said they have repeatedly argued with customers and co-workers in recent jobs.