- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

OKEMOS, Mich. | Auto dealer Caleb Zandstra confesses that he monitors his BlackBerry for customer input with the ferocity of a “doctor on call treating a heart patient.”

It’s a sign of his heightened commitment to intensive customer service, “working three times as hard as I did a year ago,” said Mr. Zandstra, who owns the Okemos Auto Collection.

“I’m available 24/7. I answer all my calls like that,” he said with recession-defying resolve.

Mr. Zandstra joins a growing chorus - from small businesses to corporations - that have rethought their marketing strategies and personalized their customer outreach as the recession creates greater competition for consumer dollars.

The winner, even as the global economy struggles to correct, is the buyer, analysts say, noting that one silver lining to the nation’s money woes is that the customer has become king, a return to those long-forgotten days when the customer was always right.

“For the first time in years, it seems like companies want my business. I mean, really want my business,” Deloitte Consulting LLC principal Jonathan Copulsky wrote in an editorial for the marketing industry publication Brandweek.

“Of course, it’s not like they didn’t want it before. But back in February, I began to notice a decisive change in tone within brand advertising, one that crossed the subtle line from ‘we’d like you to buy our brand’ to ‘buy our brand - please.’ ”

Mr. Copulsky, a marketing analyst who works in Chicago, said Tuesday that attention to customer service has reached new levels and in some cases “historic extremes.”

“In today’s economy, companies are being much more aggressive than ever before in going after new customers and trying to poach customers from competitors with fairly aggressive tactics,” he said.

He cited pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which announced this summer that it would offer its products free (Viagra included) to current patients who have lost their jobs in an effort to keep their customers. He also lauded as “brilliant” the U.S. Postal Service’s “A Simpler Way to Ship” campaign that allows customers to purchase a flat-rate box and, for a single fee, mail anything that fits in it, regardless of weight.

“Even the government has sunk to one knee in a plea for my dime,” Mr. Copulsky wrote in the Brandweek article of the Postal Service’s improved customer attitude as it struggles to retain market share and do more with less.

Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman said that although the economy has driven this new service climate, the Internet has “hastened it” and revolutionized the way consumers report on poor service. The blogosphere, he said, has put many companies on notice that if they don’t do right, their complaints will be outed to millions with just a few keystrokes.

“In a bad economy, markets realize that their customers have a choice, whether private label or their competitor,” he said. “They realize that if they have any weak link they have to address it because anyone can Google a company and find out how they are doing in terms of customer service.

“Some companies are starting to offer on their Web sites realtime chats with a customer service person,” he said. “I think that is really helpful.”

Woe to the company that doesn’t listen and respond to legitimate gripes.

For example, Ann Minch posted a video called “Debtor’s Revolt Begins Now” on YouTube in which she complained bitterly about her credit card company’s arbitrary raising of her interest rate from 12.99 percent to a whopping 30 percent.

“You are evil, thieving …,” she spews in the 4 1/2-minute rant, which slams the U.S. banking industry bailout as “the biggest rip-off in the history of the world.”

“I could get a better rate from a loan shark,” she said in a story first reported by CNNMoney.com. After her video received more than 350,000 views, her credit card company restored the original interest rate.

“With the Internet, the ability to communicate good or bad news has exploded,” Mr. Copulsky said about the public relations nightmare that can result when a consumer is scorned.

It also can have a positive effect, he said. “If someone has a great experience with a product, company or service, in seconds, literally, they can spread that news through a variety of devices - whether Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn - and take the message to thousands of people.”

For small-business owners, a traditional approach works best, said one Florida company that has revisited time-honored principles that have built loyalty.

“We make sure a person answers your call, every day of the week,” said Courtenay Carr Russo, co-owner of Tropical Delight Daiquiris, a Miami-based beverage company that depends on tourism dollars that have become more scarce in the recession.

Like Mr. Zandstra in Michigan, Mrs. Russo said, “We’re available 24/7,” so if supply runs low or equipment malfunctions, someone is on call to make it right within 12 and not more than 24 hours. As a locally owned business, that’s a value it can provide that out-of-state competitors cannot - and one worth selling, she said of her 18-year-old company, which sells frozen drink mixes to bars, hotels and cruise lines.

Mrs. Russo said she has dug in harder to personalize her business, by logging more miles for face-to-face visits and by listening to her customers and responding to their needs. As restaurant diners cut back on alcoholic beverages, for example, her company has offered appealing nonalcoholic fruit smoothies or coffee products to take their place.

“We’re being creative and we know our customers are our lifeblood,” she said. “We know they have to meet their bottom lines as well. If they succeed, we succeed - it’s a real partnership. From our point of view, by taking care of customers and helping them get through a tough time, we will both be successful when we get out of this mess.”

Mr. Zandstra, 24, said that when he gets a lead on a new customer, he e-mails a photo of himself and a resume “so they know who they are talking to.”

His company will pick up, service and return a vehicle within 300 miles, offering customers a loaner car for their trouble.

If he’s selling a used car, he researches its history and writes a story about the vehicle as a way to make a case about its past - and its value in the future. The storyline serves as key to the buyer’s emotional investment.

He said that even as “Americans have given in to this sense of do-it-yourself in checking out groceries, shopping online, pumping your own gas,” they also value “exclusivity” and a personal touch.

“I’m putting the value on the person,” he says of his business strategy. “You need to always give, if you want to receive. And if you want it, you have to work for it, now more than ever.”

His hard work seems to be paying off. In September, Mr. Zandstra sold 18 high-end automobiles - BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz - despite the troubled economy.

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