As Vice-President of Country Club Chevrolet, Tom Armao knows the value of customer service.
He demands it of his staff – from salesperson to mechanic – and it has earned his business a reputation that’s among the best in the area. To put it plainly (a trait for which Armao is widely known), employability at Country Club equals commitment to customer service.
“Customer service skills are vital. I can have the best facility and the best inventory and everything else, but if I have no customers I don’t have a business. Customer service skills are the ability to listen… It sounds corny, but putting the customer first, being genuinely concerned about their problem.”
“[It’s not only] giving them good service just because it’s routine and needed,” he continues, “but being upbeat for the customer and understanding their situation. Trying to solve their problems, and being ‘wired’ to where that’s one of your goals.”
Armao makes it clear that a commitment to customer satisfaction is his expectation of all employees, whether they have direct contact with the customer or not.
“It’s the attitude of the technicians who get things fixed in a timely fashion. Genuinely being interested in a positive outcome for the customer is something that rings through in every department.”
Armao asserts that achieving customer satisfaction comes of “the ability to work together, regardless of what department we’re in. That’s an imperative.”
Deb Ballentine is the Plant Manager at Corning Life Sciences in Oneonta, manufacturers of injection molded parts for the medical device industry.
They service academia, research and development and major pharmaceutical companies for drug development, and are one of the largest employers in the area. We asked her what she looks for in an employee.
“Two things. The fundamental skills that they bring to the workplace are a basic requirement. But, even bigger than that is wanting to work.”
“We are very proud that in our facility, the absentee rate is very, very low,” she continues. “We work a 3-shift operation, 5 days a week. Sometimes we work on the weekends. When people don’t show up for work that puts us in a bind. Can we meet the demand? And do we have to cause other people to work overtime, which incurs cost for us?”
Ballentine advises that any candidate for employment at Corning understand, “Work ethic is a really important thing that the person either needs to demonstrate via their discussion through the interview or prior work record.”
“Work ethic is really important to us.”
“The other thing that’s important,” adds Ballentine, “is the willingness to work with others. All of our jobs are dependent upon each other. It’s not that we have cadres of little teams, but we also don’t work independently. So people have to be willing – they don’t have to like them – but they certainly have to be willing to work together.”
Fox Hospital’s Director of Community Affairs, Maggie Barnes has more than 16 years experience in health care.
In that time she has come to recognize and appreciate the special skills necessary for success in the field.
According to Barnes, the best employees possess a “unique combination of compassion and intelligence.”
“We need folks who not only have a good aptitude to do their jobs, but have the appropriate attitude. You are working with people at the most stressful and frightening times of their lives, and you have to understand that.”
“Our level of customer service – quote, unquote – goes much deeper than any other business out there. We need folks who are deeply passionate about what they do, who are always looking for ways to expand their knowledge and advance their skills (which we will help them do).”
“And we look for a high level of loyalty to our patients and their families, because, when you come right down to it, that’s the basis of the health care experience. And that’s how people choose who their health care provider is going to be.”
From the beginning, Lowe’s Home Improvement has known that it takes more than quantity and price to capture the loyalties of the consumer. It takes quality and customer service.
According to John Burdick, manager at Lowe’s Oneonta, “Ever since the first Lowe’s store opened, the owners have committed to being customer service driven. The customer comes first. We take ownership and pride in making sure that we ‘partner’ with the customer.”
“Home improvement is a huge investment for our customers and we want to be a part of that. From the moment they drive into the parking lot until they leave the store, we want to make sure they are very satisfied.”
How does Lowe’s ensure that satisfaction? Through relationship building, or as Burdick puts it, “partnership.”
“The first thing our associates are taught in orientation is that they greet every customer that comes within 10 feet of them and walk that customer to product. They spend the time to get to know the customer. Building that relationship is probably the most important thing that we do.”
For Lowe’s employees, there’s a corporate expectation of their ability and desire to ‘partner’ with the customer.
As Burdick notes, “We hold our associates to a higher level of accountability.”
Lowe’s understands that in this age of high volume discount competition, customer service will always be the real key to success.
When Doug Gulotty, the President and CEO of Wilber National Bank, considers the opportunities in finance for the “emerging workforce” he is very optimistic.
“As the product line the banks offer expands, the opportunities for people with good education, good writing skills and good math skills will expand as well. And as we become more complex, the ‘back room work’ that supports each of these sales and services individuals grows exponentially.”
“This is a great time to enter the financial services industry. It has plenty of upside potential for anyone with a little bit of ambition and a lot of work ethic.”
According to Gulotty, the growth of automation in banking has produced clear standards for entry level employees.
“There’s an expectation that you’ll be able to manage a keyboard, express yourself using Word and Excel spreadsheets, and navigate the graphic user interfaces that seem to separate you from the actual servers that are doing the work. In the absence of that ability, you’d find yourself lost. You have to be able to accept the intuitive instruction of a graphic user interface.”
Equally, if not more important, are customer service skills.
“They are probably the single most important skill set we should hire for in every position,” Gulotty declares.
“The first skill set is the ability to listen and to be attentive. The second would be to accept that information from that customer, vendor or co-worker and put it into a context of changing variables.”
“Customer service is not a matter of putting out a cookie-cutter response. It’s about taking that information in, taking the time to think about it, and then applying it to very disparate circumstances to arrive at a mutually satisfying conclusion.”
Choices made when you are young can have unforeseen impact on your adult life.
Those choices, whether positive or negative, may determine your employability and salary range. Tom Mirabito, Jr. is Vice President for Granite Capital Holdings, which includes the Mirabito Fuel Group, Mang Insurance, Quickway Food Stores, and Old Road Truck Repair. DOT regulations require that employees of Mirabito Fuel Group are randomly drug tested.
“If you fail it, you can’t work for us,” explains Mirabito. “There’s absolutely no compromise on that.”
“I like to emphasize to young people, in particular, that the decisions they make – especially if they want to be a truck driver for us – may result in our not being able to hire them.”
“If they have a poor driving record, we can’t hire them. When you think about it, they’re going to be driving down the road with 26-hundred gallons of fuel that, if they’re not careful, could become a dangerous product. It’s a hazardous material.”
Mirabito continues, “Drivers at that level need to have a CDL and HazMat endorsements, and that’s difficult to get now.”
He also points out that in this post-9-11 world, drivers need to have background checks. “They need to be finger-printed. It’s non-negotiable.”
M.D. Poole owns Private Drawers, a small retail store on Main Street in Oneonta.
Poole has people come into her shop each week looking for work. She says, “The person looking for work who walks in wearing flip-flops and jeans, trailing her boyfriend behind her, has started off on the wrong foot. Then when her first statement is, ‘Hey, are you hiring,’ I know she’s not for me.”
Poole says, for a walk in applicant, there’s a list of things to do to make the right impression:
1. Visit the shop before you go to ask for a job, so that you know what the atmosphere and merchandise are like.
2. Dress as you would for the job.
3. Go alone, without friends, parents, or partners.
4. Wait your turn if there are customers in the store.
5. Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. Reach out your hand for a shake. Then, ask for the manager or owner. Keep introducing yourself and shake hands with each new person you meet.
6. Instead of asking, “Are you hiring?” state your intention. “I’d love to work here. May I have an application?” Even if the store is not hiring, you’ll have made a positive impression.
7. Take the application home. Fill it out truthfully, neatly, and completely. Return it the next day. Let the employer see you twice.
8. Ask for an interview appointment. Poole says she is always on the look-out for mature people to hire. She typically has two to four part-time employees at Private Drawers, people who “must have charismatic personalities and who love serving others.”
It was 1958, when a young man donned the Howe Caverns tie and blazer for his first day as a tour guide.
Nearly 50 years later, John Sagendorf greets patrons of Schoharie County’s premier tourist attraction with the same warm smile and comfortable, certain tone that were his stock in trade during those formative first few years.
Although as General Manager his responsibilities are well beyond those of a tour guide, Sagendorf attributes much of his success to those skills honed while guiding tourists through the caverns.
“In those days,” he says “the majority of the tour was entertainment with a little bit of education thrown in,” unlike today, where the expectations of the customers are much different.
“They all want to know more when they leave here than they did when they arrived,” he explains. “They’re more interested in the educational value that we can provide, versus the entertainment value.”
But while the expectations and experiences of the attraction’s several thousand annual visitors have evolved over Howe Caverns’ 77 years of operation, the definition of customer service has not.
Whether that interaction comes as a tour guide, business office professional, receptionist, maintenance person, or food service or accommodations employee, the standards for customer service and social skills remain the same.
As Sagendorf makes clear, “In any tourism or hospitality business, social skills are absolutely paramount. We are dealing with guests every day who come here and spend their hard-earned money for an extraordinary experience. It’s up to us to provide that.”
“It’s an attitude we look for. We work when other people play, and we work so that other people can play. That means we work nights. We work weekends. We work every holiday. That kind of flexibility and interest is critically important.”
The person who joins the Howe Caverns staff, albeit typically seasonal employment, reaps benefits beyond those in his or her pay envelope.
“Because we are every day speaking with and serving people,” Sagendorf confides, “our folks who work here – especially our young folks – are going to gain public speaking skills. They’re going to add to their social skills. They’re going to learn how to deal with happy people and unhappy people and how to specifically meet their needs. They’re going to learn manners as part of their social skills. They’re going to learn how to dress and why it’s important that we dress that way. They’re going to learn the importance of being to work on time, and being flexible. They’re going to learn lifetime skills here that will serve them for the rest of their lives and serve them well.
Just as they’ve served John Sagendorf.
Teddie Storey, formerly the Director of the Delaware County Career Centers is concerned about how prepared young people are for entry to the workforce.
“The schools prepare students for college. They [address the] basic educational needs – reading, writing, arithmetic – but they do not prepare them with the ‘soft’ skills that are needed to find a job: Good customer service, being polite, grooming, flexibility, and being willing to accept something that they feel may be below them with the hopes of looking for something better in the future.”
“A lot of kids come out of school assuming there’s going to be a 20-dollar an hour job available to them, and there isn’t. But it may be available to them in the future.”
“I think a lot of us in Delaware County have started at the bottom of the ladder and worked our way up.”
Honing your ‘soft’ skills, exhibiting patience and having a realistic career plan are all keys to landing a good job. But education should never be discounted.
Storey adds, “We see a lot of people who do not have a high school diploma, and we encourage them to either return to school or go for GED training. Without the high school diploma or the GED, the chance of finding a job is pretty much impossible.”
For information and assistance, visit the Delaware County Career Centers, located in Delhi and Sidney.