In Small Biz, There's No Small Stuff

When it comes to customer service, take a tip from a good police chief: The small things can be just as important as the high-profile ones

Last week I called customer service at a major national retailer. After navigating the obligatory automated telephone routing system, I was given the option of leaving a message (with the promise of a returned call) or of holding for the next available representative. Since I had already sent the company three e-mails that had gone unanswered, I opted to hold. After about two minutes, the line went dead.

Guessing there had been some kind of phone service glitch, I called back, made my way through the prompts, and the line went dead again. I did this two more times before I finally gave up and called a competitor. "If it's important, they'll call back," appears to be this company's philosophy on customer service (, 6/1/07).

It is amazing to me how frequently this kind of thing still happens. Companies in crushingly competitive industries spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising, but still can't seem to find the time to answer the phone when a customer wants to buy something from them.

Focusing on High Profile Issues

I have come to see these scenarios as more than just annoyances; they are often signals of a critical failure of leadership. In these organizations, we can only assume that senior executives feel they can't be bothered by such trivial matters as customers reaching customer service—they've got more important things to do—like prepare budgets and meet with analysts.

Similar to company executives who are too busy to worry about whether the phones are getting answered, police chiefs in New York City used to focus their attention on the "big" issues—like managing City Hall and the media, and on big crimes such as murder and robbery. Until, that is, William Bratton was appointed police chief of New York City in 1994.

Influenced by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, Bratton focused his attention on petty crimes like jumping subway turnstiles and spray-painting graffiti on rail cars. The policies initiated during Bratton's tenure are credited with a 39% decline in serious crimes and a 50% reduction in homicides. What was the connection between petty and serious crime? It turned out that many of the same people who were jumping turnstiles were also robbing and shooting people once they got on the train—so arresting them for these petty crimes kept them from committing more serious ones.

Little Things Aren't Little

But in Bratton's view, something even more important was happening. Bratton believed that when police fail to prosecute crimes like turnstile jumping and graffiti spraying, it breeds "fear and disorder" in neighborhoods and opens the door to more serious crimes. By enforcing these kinds of rules, Bratton restored order in New York's unruly subways—which in turn strengthened the community's resolve to not tolerate crime.

Like turnstile jumping and graffiti spraying in a New York subway, it's the little things in business (like answering the phone) that will largely determine how employees behave. They may not "breed fear and disorder," but they can breed apathy and complacency. The company with the automated telephone system that makes it practically impossible to talk to a live person is sending a clear signal to its employees that customers don't matter. Executives who make commitments to employees and then fail to follow through are essentially teaching employees to be true to their word only if it's convenient.

Living Up to Commitments

The best-performing companies understand the importance of little things, and executives at those companies know a powerful way to influence the behavior of others is to lead by example. In the course of writing my upcoming book, my team and I called Bob Kierlin, founder and chairman of Fastenal (FAST), one of the nation's leading distributors of industrial products. To our surprise, he answered his own phone, and booked an appointment to talk with us right there during the call. No automated phone system, snarling executive assistant, or routing through the bowels of a public relations department—just one phone call and we were talking to him directly.

When we asked Kierlin his secret to building a $2 billion company with some 2,000 stores, he spent most of his time talking about the little things—believing in people, keeping your word, and making yourself available. We met with nearly 20 other Fastenal people in our research on the company and we noticed something right away. Fastenal people don't jump turnstiles. They return phone calls, and if they make a commitment to you, it will happen.

I don't know when companies decided it was O.K. to build fortresses of telephone response systems to protect themselves from customer questions—but it is clearly a bad idea. Technology should make communication more efficient, not more difficult.

A Governor Who Answers E-Mails

Last month I flew to Los Angeles for the tenth anniversary celebration for the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The featured speaker for the evening was Florida Governor Jeb Bush. During his speech, Bush mentioned he tries to make himself available to constituents who want to raise an issue with their governor. "Anyone who wants to e-mail me can simply e-mail me at" he said in his speech.

Could the governor of a large state really give out his e-mail address and not be inundated by cranks and nutcases? I decided to put him to the test. Early the next morning I e-mailed him from my Blackberry and asked him about an obscure historical reference he had made in his speech (I figured he had staff members who answered all his e-mails—and I wanted to ask a question I believed his staff wouldn't be able to answer). A couple hours later I got a response from him—and I have every reason to believe he sent it personally.

Folks like Bob Kierlin and Jeb Bush show us that as executives we too often use the pace of our lives as an excuse to not make ourselves available to people who matter, like our customers and staff. If the head of a $2 billion business and the governor of a large state can do it, then we can probably find a way to do it too.