A low score on a customer service audit showed its absence; a big jump in rank one year later proved its presence.

Even 100 years of business may not mean much when it comes down to satisfying customers one-on-one and one by one. That's what Henry Scherer, Edwin Stipe Inc., Easton, Pa., discovered after coming in 60th place in a national customer satisfaction audit.

"That was a wake up call that we were going off track," Scherer says of the audit that took place in 2000. Customer satisfaction was all the more important to Scherer since he and his field operation manager, Steve Mundinger, had purposely steered the company into residential service to augment its existing commercial service. Since its start in 1995, residential service has steadily increased and brought in $1 million in revenue last year from a total of $2.5 million. Currently, the company has 15 service trucks and employs a total of 27 people.

"Our area is booming," Scherer adds. "The housing market has exploded. I definitely see our future in residential service. The key to unlocking the residential service market is to keep our new and growing customer base sold on our service so they will keep coming back for more."

The audit was the work of Contractors 2000, which Scherer joined in 1995. According to Bob Mallory, marketing services manager for C-2000, member firms provide a list of 200 names of current customers. An independent research firm then makes calls, asks a variety of service-related questions and comes up with an overall numerical score. That score is then compared to other participating C-2000 members. "I can't be sure," Mallory says, "but I think Henry's company may have come in last that year. Certainly he came in close to last."

With the low customer satisfaction rank in mind and a good bet on future business at stake, Scherer knew he had his work cut out to turn this situation around. He quickly realized if 100 percent customer satisfaction was going to happen in his company, it had to start at the top, with him. He empowered all employees to do what it takes to make every customer happy with one qualification: All problems and their resolutions had to be reported to Henry or one of the department managers.

"We had to ensure problems had been resolved and not hidden," Scherer explains.

The entire team began concentrating on the 100 percent customer satisfaction theme. They started with training their team of employees, instilling the belief that everyone was a contributor to customer satisfaction. Whatever it takes to satisfy their customers began to affect everything they did.

"Every job changed to some degree," Scherer says. "Everybody put the notion of '100 percent customer satisfaction guaranteed' into everything they did."

Card Program

One example of this commitment is a personalized card program, an offshoot of what C-2000 terms a "happy call." As Scherer explains it, customer service reps call each and every customer a couple of days after the work has been done and ask a list of questions about the service provided.

However, the CSR also makes notes of items of a more personal nature. "When a customer opens up to one of our employees and tells them about a birthday, an operation they just had, an anniversary, we make note of it," Scherer says. "Soon after, we send out a get well, birthday or congratulations card. Everything is handwritten, the note, the signature and the address on the envelope -- it's even got a regular postage stamp, not a meter mark. Customers have commented on how much the cards have meant to them."

In addition to the personal touch, a company newsletter further helps retain business. Scherer says one of the most read parts of the newsletter is the "report card" drawing held every quarter. The report cards are abbreviated customer satisfaction surveys, left by technicians with each customer. Every returned card goes to Scherer. The cards are then entered into a drawing with three winners each receiving $50. The winners are always announced in that quarter's newsletter.

"Two of my employees take the drawing to an exciting level," Scherer says. "Now they call themselves the 'Prize Patrol' like Publishers' Clearing House. They actually go out, get balloons, deliver the prizes to the winners and take their pictures for the newsletter. They do the whole nine yards!"

Marketing Plan

While everyone honed his or her customer service skills, Scherer also implemented a formal marketing plan to bring in even more business. In the past, the company had a marketing plan, but it was loosely developed and wasn't adhered to. In 2001, Scherer decided on a dollar amount to invest and used a C-2000 marketing calendar to identify what tactics to take and when to use them.

"This year we stuck to it," Scherer says. "We discovered we are in an area where radio reaches the exact population we want to attract." The seven spots Scherer ran quickly got the company name recognition.

"If someone knows I'm with Edwin Stipe, everyone at least from our marketing area tells me they know our name," Scherer says. "They remember us mostly through the radio spots, and in many cases, they'll recite the radio spot in front of me! That would have never happened three years ago."

The company also followed up the radio campaign with direct mail. Radio and direct mail are the main tactics they use for attracting new business. They are running quarter-page ads in four Yellow Pages books, which comprise less than 30 percent of their advertising budget. Scherer theorizes they hear the radio spots, see the direct mail and the trucks in the neighborhood, and then go to the Yellow Pages to find the company's phone number.

A year after finishing in 60th place, Scherer again took the C-2000 audit -- and leaped all the way up to 5th place. "It's a lot of little things we do that contribute to our customers being satisfied," Scherer says. "It takes a lot of coordination, a lot of input from all of us."

While the customer service philosophy continues, Scherer has bigger plans for the near future. Within the next one to two years, Scherer plans to implement a service no other company in his area is doing. It's 24-hour service. Not just emergency service, but standard service. Scherer adds that no matter what time of the night you drive through his trading area, all the convenience stores are open, many of the plants are going, people work in different shifts, getting home at all different times of the day and night.

"It would be the ultimate in customer service," Scherer says.