A founder must first identify the customer’s exact needs and then provide a solution. For example, we began offering annual maintenance programs to combat burrowing pests. We came to realize that we were missing the mark by only offering one-time treatments. Customers preferred a year-round program!
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 Zachary Smith.
Landscape Pro Turned Gopher Pro: Zach Smith, owner of Smith’s Pest Management, is a graduate of Cal Poly’s Horticulture Program. During his nine years as a landscape professional, he developed a knack for dealing with ground squirrels, moles and gophers. That talent led to the establishment of his own company more than 10 years ago. Zach and his hardworking teams defend commercial, municipal and residential properties against insects and burrowing pests all across the San Francisco Bay Area.
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?
When I graduated from the Cal Poly horticulture program in 2002, I began working for various landscape companies as an account manager. Ten years later, I started up my own landscaping business. It didn’t take long to realize no one was specializing in landscape pests like gophers and moles.
I knew I was on to something. Over time, I formulated a plan and began learning how to trap these destructive animals and get them out of people’s yards. A few years later, I launched Smith’s Pest Management and focused on animal pests around the San Francisco Bay Area. That was 12 years ago. Today we serve seven counties and employ nearly 30 people.
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?
One of the funniest mistakes I made wasn’t funny at the time. I spent thousands of dollars printing and sending out advertising postcards, but I forgot to include our contact information. Thanks to search engines and a robust website, people were still able to look us up. It was a costly mistake, but it’s funny now that I can look back on it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I attribute most of my success to good mentorship. I often invite more experienced professionals for a cup of coffee. It’s something I’ve done my entire career. They’re always willing to share hard-earned lessons and help me avoid pitfalls they’ve dealt with.
One of the most important meetings I ever had was with a man named Tom Moore. I was starting a new job, and he was a landscape professional working on another property for a customer who had just hired me. At the time, I’d only been in business for a few weeks.
Tom was a little curious about me, and we got along really well. He shared invaluable information on the best ways to hire employees, motivate my teams, set my prices and deal with conflict.
It sounds like a lot for one meeting, but we dove right in. To this day, Tom remains a key mentor. All these years later, I’ll never forget meeting him that first day. I’ll always appreciate how much interest he took in helping me get my business off on the right foot.
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?
People like to do business with someone they believe respects and appreciates them. To me, sincere respect is the foundation of great customer service. Appreciation and respect go a long way toward earning a customer’s loyalty. We have to provide quality products and services, but we can’t rely on that alone. The customer has to feel respected and, I would even go so far as to say, loved.
When they need work done, customers can choose from multiple companies. They’ll ask friends and neighbors, look at online reviews and search local directories. No matter how they find us, customers often tell us they know we’re competent and affordable, but they want to work with us because they know we’re trustworthy and reliable.
I strongly believe that you must be respectful, trustworthy and reliable in order to provide great customer service. That commitment ensures that the customer’s experience will include feeling respected and loved.
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?
This is another great question. I think some companies get overwhelmed. They sell the promise of a great experience, but they’re understaffed or unprepared for the volume of work that comes in.
We experienced our own failures in customer service. They happened because we got too busy too fast. A successful business has to keep safety checks in place that guard the customer experience. Otherwise, you’re frantically responding and covering your bases while trying to engineer a fix on the fly.
In my opinion, it’s very rare for a business to not understand what the customer wants. Failure happens when a company doesn’t set itself up to provide a great customer experience from sales to fulfillment and even through the billing process. There has to be a customer service mindset at every step.
Answering the phone for the first sales call requires just as much care as delivering the bill at the end of the job. For example, a company has to anticipate how well a customer-service focused team can bring in business. Otherwise, they risk overwhelming a staff that isn’t prepared or equipped to follow through and handle the volume.
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?
I believe that competition can really push a company to get better at customer service. It motivates a business to re-engineer the customer experience based on what their peers are providing.
Recruiting employees is another external pressure that can drive a company to do better. In my experience, employees would much rather work for companies that provide great customer service. When we’re recruiting, we make sure prospective hires know that this is a special company. We really strive to put a smile on every customer’s face. That resonates with the candidates!
If a company struggles with customer service, if they have poor online reviews, candidates get an uneasy feeling. I believe the best job applicants want to work for a business that has five-star reviews and knows how to keep people happy.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
I’d have to say it would be a project for a very large commercial property that had become overrun with a serious pest infestation. For several years, the property manager had been dealing with extensive landscape damage caused by meadow voles.
These small rodents are diminutive little critters. They appear harmless when you look at just one, but their population can number into the thousands. Meadow voles are voracious feeders. They kill tree bark and other plants, and they kill quickly!
Property management was at their wit’s end. Eliminating the problem had become a very expensive proposition, but we were able to work with them. I crafted a plan that addressed the landscape issues as well as the needs of our customer and their tenants.
Our teams worked three shifts, seven days a week. We tailored our services so that we could work with minimum disruption on a very busy, high profile campus. We got the problem under control and got the job done. Our work saved the customer from having to shut down the campus, and that saved them tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s all about creative thinking, tailoring the work to the customer’s needs and understanding how it affects their tenants and customers. Getting it right provides the “Wow!” experience. Genuine empathy goes a long way. The customer feels confident that they made the right choice in hiring you because you’re a conscientious service provider.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
The customer referred us to a number of other high-profile commercial properties. We’re now considered the local go-to experts for dealing with this type of pest issue. Instead of trying to sell the customer a solution that was easy for us, we put in the extra effort. It paid off. I firmly believe that putting ourselves second to the customer puts us in the number one spot!
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.
1. A founder must first identify the customer’s exact needs and then provide a solution. For example, we began offering annual maintenance programs to combat burrowing pests. We came to realize that we were missing the mark by only offering one-time treatments. Customers preferred a year-round program!
We were pleasing our customers, but we could have been “wowing” them with comprehensive services that saved them time and money. Also, the policy shift made scheduling easier, and that made workflow steadier and more predictable. It was a definite win-win!
2. A founder must know how to ask for customer feedback. In our first years, we were making too many assumptions. We had to learn to ask the right questions through the right channels. That gave us the customer feedback we needed to change, improve and provide a better experience.
For instance, we learned that offering a money-back guarantee reduced customer concerns about first-time jobs or purchasing a service plan. Once we implemented that guarantee, sales and customer referrals increased.
3. A founder needs to understand how to capitalize on bad feedback and use the review process to shape the customer satisfaction experience. My company takes all negative reviews to heart. At team meetings, we analyze them and put ourselves in the customer’s shoes.
That helps us implement systematic changes that reduce or eliminate future missteps. We believe that a company should embrace online-reviews. We need to rise to the challenge of listening to and pleasing the hardest-to-please out there. You can make amazing improvements based on a 1-star review.
4. A founder has to motivate employees to provide that customer “Wow!” experience. When one of our team members gets a positive mention from a customer, we give him or her special recognition as well as a small prize or a bonus.
We also coach our teams by debriefing them after a tough customer interaction. We explain how a call could have gone better. That gives employees the confidence they need going forward.
By coaching and rewarding, we build teams that stay excited about “wowing” our customers. Their excitement and enthusiasm leads to higher customer satisfaction scores, and that’s not a coincidence!
5. A founder needs to identify what it really means to exceed customer expectations. Over the years, the phrase has lost its true meaning. Instead, it implies that it’s OK to just do a passable job.
It’s easy to forget that a customer’s expectations are often much higher than you realize. Aiming to exceed those expectations can seem impossible, so we work on “sympathizing exercises” with our customer service and production teams.
The goal is to identify what it takes to exceed expectations and how to go above and beyond. My teams are always surprised at how hard-to-please they become when we work through this exercise. It gives them perspective on how to truly “Wow!” the customer, not just satisfy them!
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?
That’s a great question. We feel that, without a little help, a very happy customer might not always be a shoo-in for word-of-mouth referrals. That’s why we reach out to and thank all our customers.
We do more than remind them that they probably have friends and family who also need solid solutions to pest problems. We offer a first-visit savings coupon for new customers, and we give original customers a referral discount too!
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. 🙂
Well, thank you! It’s actually a topic I think about often, so the question is easy for me to answer.
Everything we do today to develop the minds and imaginations of at-risk and impoverished children will pay back enormous dividends. Every child who grows and develops into a thriving and emotionally mature adult can touch so many lives in a positive way. By investing in the minds and spirits of our children, we’re investing in the health of our society!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn Zach Smith: Linkedin.com/in/zachary-smith-381149
LinkedIn Company: LinkedIn.com/company/smiths-pest-management
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!