Put the customer first at all costs. You may lose money on certain jobs, but that money will come back to you tenfold by making every single customer happy.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Quinn Williams, President and Founder of Saint Louis Closet Co. While in her first semester of Saint Louis University graduate school, and while working part-time at three restaurants, Jennifer decided to do what she loved: change people’s lives through custom organization. She approached the Small Business Administration (SBA) to get a crash course on starting a business. That November, she forged ahead with acquiring a start-up loan and taking a risk, trusting that early sales of her new custom closet systems would prove profitable. They certainly did! That first year, Jennifer — a 25-year-old college grad — made 236,000 dollars in sales. This amount would be exceeded by over 2,500 percent over the next 29+ years.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Coming from St. Louis, I feel like I have to start with what high school I attended. It’s silly but essentially a tradition: Kirkwood High School, class of 1984. Saint Louis University was my next destination — not too far from home. I earned a B.A. in Communications and Public Relations, which helped me to envision a company that would serve the needs of my community. I opened the doors of Saint Louis Closet Co. in 1991 and never looked back. My husband, Matt, is a fellow entrepreneur, and we have two children, Matthew and Hallie.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first started my business, I financed 15,000 dollars on my own credit cards. I learned that as a budding entrepreneur, you will have to make decisions and take risks in every aspect of not only the business, but also your personal life. I knew it was risky leveraging my credit to start Saint Louis Closet Co., but at the same time, I just knew it would work. This kind of gut-feeling intuition is imperative to the success of most entrepreneurs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Matt Williams, my husband, and fellow entrepreneur is truly my go-to for all business support, ideas, and questions! He owns TKO DJs, a company he started in high school when he was 15 years old. In 1994 (three years after I opened my business), I was perusing the St. Louis Business Journal during Small Business Week and noticed a story about Matt — the Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Missouri. I said out loud, “He’s cute, he’s young, he runs a business, and I’m going to meet him!” I bought a ticket to the luncheon honoring him, introduced myself, and he invited me to sit at his table. We began a professional relationship, meeting for lunch and coffee to discuss and collaborate on the ups and downs of being young and owning your own businesses. Several years later, we were engaged.
One bit of advice I give to fellow entrepreneurs is to surround yourself with supportive people along with those who are experiencing the same things as you. You don’t have to marry them, but keep them close. These are the folks that will tell you their honest opinions.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Great customer service is paramount to the success of any business, as an unhappy customer will become a loyal consumer if you fix their complaint quickly. Treat them fairly and 80% of these folks will come back. That percentage rises to the upper 90s if you respond immediately. Every day you have the chance to transform mistakes into returning customers, even raving fans — the kind who will tell other people good things about you.
A favorite quote (that I live by) is from the book Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles. “Your customers are only satisfied because their expectations are so low and because no one else is doing better. Just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore. If you really want a booming business, you have to create Raving Fans.”
We have all had times either in a store or online when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I believe the disconnect comes from the top down. If you have a company that is too large or one where the owner is not involved, that feeling trickles down to the employees. If the employees who deal face to face with the customers don’t care, then the customer service aspect will suffer. You will also lose great employees who leave without having the full support of the company.
Company owners can also get caught up in the immediate profits and forget about the long game. If your company has bad customer service, it may not show up immediately but the referral and repeat segment of your business will wane over time. This is the most profitable and loyal segment of your customers — needed to grow and sustain your business.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Competition may help improve customer service in some industries. However, going back to my last answer, you either have ownership and management that prioritizes customer service or you don’t. It’s impossible for employees to improve customer experiences if the company doesn’t back them up.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “wowed” by the experience you provided?
At Saint Louis Closet Co., we try to WOW all our customers every day. However, there is one customer in particular who stands out. A woman had wire shelves that were falling off the wall, her clothes were everywhere, and she called in a panic. We sent a designer out that same day, designed a custom closet on the spot, and were able to squeeze her in within a week for installation. After getting the closet installed, she was so happy with her new closet and our customer service. She later called me crying that her new closet had literally changed her life. She asked what she could do for us, and so I replied, “I’m just so happy you’re happy.”
She wrote us raving online reviews and began recommending her friends and neighbors. A few months later, she called to tell me that she decided to host a cocktail party for her friends INSIDE her closet!
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
That customer is still one of our best referrals today. She has since purchased a pantry, a Murphy bed, a garage system, and her laundry room from us. I like to joke with her that I want to be invited to the next ‘closet party’ she hosts.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! customer experience? Please share a story or an example for each.
Six things business owners can do to create amazing customer service and WOW experiences:
1. Put the customer first at all costs. You may lose money on certain jobs, but that money will come back to you tenfold by making every single customer happy.
2. As a leader, be the face of the business and let your customers know you are there if they’re not happy. Don’t hide behind email or the phone — be available and listen. Remember that very few unhappy customers will give you the chance to correct their bad experience. Just take every chance you can to turn that experience around.
3. Insist and demand 100% customer service from every employee, from the person who answers your phone to the person who cleans your office and removes your snow. Make these folks understand how important their roles are in making the customer service part of your business run smoothly.
4. Empower your front-line employees to make customers happy. If the employees have the power to make decisions that create WOW experiences, let them! Make your employees part of the solution, not the problem.
5. I like to take every bad customer service experience and bring it back to my business to talk about it with my team. We learn from each other and our past experiences to do better.
6. Admit up front that you’re not perfect. When you make a mistake, immediately apologize and fix it as fast as you can!
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
When your customers have WOW experiences, try to channel that positive energy and momentum into referrals and repeat business. Ask for reviews online, begin a customer loyalty program, and offer referral fees. Repeat and referral business is not only the best business, but it also costs way less in advertising/marketing costs to get this type of business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Mine would be a “Get Your Closet Organized” movement so that all that’s wrong in the world would be better! I truly believe that if you start your morning off organized and getting ready is a joy, not a hassle, then we would all be happier with more time and less stress. A customized closet can help with that and more.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!