Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Old-Fashioned Customer Service

My latest was originally published as a guest post on CustomerCEO.com on January 16, 2013. It's presented here with a few updates.

Remember the good old days, when you didn't have to pump your own gas? Whatever happened to full-service service stations?

I was watching American Pickers on the History Channel with my parents over the holidays; I noticed that the pickers seemed to be enamored by old service station memorabilia. Finding that memorabilia took them down memory lane, where they recalled days of true service stations.  I'm guessing some of my readers are even too young to remember them. For those who are, you'll appreciate this commercial!

These service stations are a great example of what service should be. At least that's how I remember them!

Let me explain. In the "old days," you could pull into a gas station and not even have to get out of your car. A filling station attendant, aka "gas jockey," would be standing there, ready to: greet you, fill your gas tank, clean your windows, check your tires, and maybe even check under the hood. And these perks were free. They were part of the service experience at these stations. You paid for the gas but not for the service. Getting gas for your car was an experience, and it took a little more time than pumping your own gas does today. The attendants actually talked to their customers and got to know them.

If you google "service stations," you come up with next to nothing. Why? Because these full-service stations are pretty much non-existent in the US now, except for in two states, New Jersey and Oregon, where it's against the law to pump your own gas. (Apologies to my readers outside of the US; I realize these full-service stations do/may exist in your country.) If you live in either of those states, let me know if the level of service you get is comparable to what was offered back in the "old days."

Watching that American Pickers show got me thinking... what was so special about service stations? And how do we bring that level of service back? What can we learn from these full-service service stations?

Well, we certainly cannot underestimate the importance of...
  • service with a smile
  • a friendly greeting
  • staff appearance
  • enjoying what you do
  • hiring people people (or is it "people persons?")
  • "I'll take care of it for you" attitude
  • knowing your customers (literally) and their needs
  • a personalized experience, including greeting customers by name
  • trust relationships (some station owners allowed customers to "charge" gas and settle their bills every month)
  • going the extra mile

I love the closing line of the commercial: "At Texaco, we're working to keep your trust." Is there a brand that uses (or deserves to use) that line today?

What happened between then and now? Why can't we get this kind of service today? Not just from a gas station but from any company with which we interact?

How do we instill this type of "at your service" attitude into frontline staff or into anyone that touches the customer? Is it a realistic expectation?

I'm of the opinion that it's all about the people you hire. That attitude can't be trained.

I am convinced that nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategies. -Lawrence Bossidy, Former COO of GE


  1. Yes it is all about the people you hire - that is the first step.
    But once you have the right team you need the right frontline leadership otherwise you will loose that talent or they will just stop performing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Absolutely agree with you!

      Annette ;-)

  2. My way of thinking may be a little different than others, but it is definitely something that I have noticed. I'm thinking WHERE a person lives affects the kind of service you get. Sounds weird, huh? Let me explain...

    When we lived in that other state, which I won't name (but has the initials CO), customer service everywhere was terrible. Didn't matter if it was a store or a restaurant or a bank...it just seemed the workers in that state were miserable, and they passed on that misery to the customers. Because, it didn't matter who you talked to, everyone said customer service out there, for lack of a better word, sucked. Don't get me wrong...there were definitely some great service people there. But, as a whole, you rarely felt like you mattered, even though you were the one with the money.

    Now, fast forward to our time here in Arizona. From the first time we went somewhere, we received service that was great. It was a weird feeling, because we weren't used to being treated like that. We feel almost every time we go somewhere that we're more than the next faceless creature they need to help. People out here actually seem to enjoy their jobs.

    So, is it the snow and high altitude making people miserable in CO? And, is it the sun and warmth making people happy out here in AZ? I don't know. I just know we are a lot happier visiting businesses here, because of the people, than we did in CO.

    1. Hey Chris.

      Good question... it's definitely an interesting observation. With a sample size of 1, it's hard to say, but I think we probably all have examples of different states, cities, areas we've frequented and received service that was less than desirable.

      As Mike also points out above... it's about the people you hire. Is it possible that everyone in CO is miserable? (I'm thinking some of my CO friends might disagree. :-))

      Annette :-)

  3. Great post. It wasn't really that long ago. As a high-school kid, I was one of those that worked at a service station. And I'm not that old,... The 80s was the decade where ATMs replaced tellers at the bank, and gas stations went self-serve. Something in that decade must have evolved to drive this new concept of "efficiency."

    I agree that this starts at the top, leadership and management. It is possible to get it back. Tony Hsieh, Jeff Bezos, Zappos and Amazon, for example - beat out Payless and Walmart in terms of customer service. And, the leadership at the top drives it. So it's the people, for sure - both up and down the ranks.

    In thinking about whether it's geography that influences this..., well, perhaps - but I believe it starts when you are a kid. It's a function of your upbringing - how you were raised. If you were raised to serve others, you will make a great leader/manager/employee in terms of service-level to customers. If you were raised to feel like you were entitled, well, you might not do well at Zappos. I'll say it - parents pass this on in the early formation of behavior and expectations in their children.

    Oh, one more thing from the list that the service station provided, was the daily scoop. I think about all the re-runs of the Andy Griffith show on today's TV Land channel, where the town learned about Mayberry news from Goober, the service station attendant - as much as the barber!

    Your post helps us all take pause, and figure out how we can improve our own service oriented leadership - either as a manager or an individual contributor. Thanks Annette!

    1. Thanks, Andrew. Well said! I've got nothing to add. :-)

      Good point about the daily scoop, too! In Mayberry, everyone was "family." Even Goober knew about making connections and building relationships.

      Annette :-)

  4. Annette, in the UK we no longer have any "service" stations, we buy our "gas" (I always thought it was a liquid) where it is cheap, usually a big supermarket.

    Which begs the question, does service count for anything when we are buying a commodity product?


    1. Interesting, James. And you always pose the good questions!

      I think when we're buying a commodity product, service becomes that much more important. How do we stand out in a sea of sameness? By offering the best experience. By doing other things to delight our customers. By adding value when it is least expected.

      Annette :-)

    2. Hi Annette, James,
      I wrote about something similar and how Shell is pioneering a new approach in the UK (http://www.adrianswinscoe.com/blog/customer-service-drives-repeat-business-and-higher-customer-lifetime-value-even-shell-now-gets-it/).

      It seems that some firms get the idea that, in many cases, even commodities have to innovate to stand out.


    3. Thanks for sharing that post, Adrian. Great example!

      Annette :-)

  5. thanks for share....

  6. Thank you for this information very useful !

  7. Present customer service representatives should take this as an example.

  8. Good to read :)