I was in shock. I had called an 800 number, and it was answered by a real person! There was no “press this” or “press that,” just a friendly “Good morning.” Not even a frantic, “Can you hold?” Next, I was asked how I was doing instead of being asked for some sort of customer number. Remember, all those pleasantries we used to take for granted, the ones that just aren’t there anymore in far too many businesses? I had called Skyline Northwest in Lake Oswego, Ore., to order a replacement strap for my goggles. While swimming that morning, the strap let go. I guess it was time for a new strap. The customer support re-capped our conversation with, “We’ll get that right out to you at no charge!” I was delighted and truly impressed. Is it any wonder that I, and so many others, buy only Barracuda swim goggles? I won’t even look at anybody else’s. The company has a very devoted following. Contrast this with the treatment we get when calling our phone company, credit card company, Internet service provider, technical support, customer service or a host of other organizations. They want to spend as little as possible taking calls from us, their customers. Before we can get to a real person, who may or may not be helpful, we have to navigate through a series of menus. They want us to do all the work, and all too often the person we finally get is offshore with an accent that is difficult to understand. How can businesses be so small-minded? Some companies even go so far as charging for each contact. Have you called technical support for a software company lately? Many want us to pay just to speak with a technical support rep (and I hate to pay them to fix their bugs. They should be paying us for shipping a faulty product and giving us such grief and aggravation.). The next step will be for them to figure a way to charge us for reading their ads. It’s too bad they don’t understand, as Skyline Northwest does, that investing in customers and their satisfaction can provide far greater dividends. Actually taking care of customers is more effective and less costly than advertising. In fact, I’ve told a number of my swimming friends about my experience. Some are already Skyline Northwest customers and readily agreed. Others wanted the 800 number. Isn’t word-of-mouth most effective? It works whether we’re talking about good experiences or bad ones. I discovered Barracudas over twenty years ago in a “Sharper Image” catalog. The best goggles I had been able to find were terrible, and the Barracudas were described as superb. They were expensive, four or five times more than the goggles I was using, but the description was so convincing, I ordered them, and have never been disappointed. I’ve bought a number of pairs since, and I’ve sent older pairs back to the factory for refurbishing. They always come back looking brand new. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Barracudas advertised anywhere, but I see their competitors’ ads all the time. But the way Skyline Northwest treats their customers is far more powerful than their competitors’ advertising and a lot cheaper too. An avid swimmer, who couldn’t find decent goggles, Dr. John Runckel decided to make his own in 1979. His experience with various dental compounds enabled him to find just the right combinations. The first thing he knew, he was making goggles for his swimming friends, and Skyline Northwest was born. I hope they never hire an “expert” who tries to talk them into making more money by shaving here and there to “reduce costs.” Those schemes may look good in the short term because it takes customers a while to figure out the magic is gone. For a few months, profits are up, but before you know it, customers figure it out, and volume starts falling. The “cost-cutters” never seem to make the connection. They blame “increased competition.” What’s really happened is they’ve decreased their competitive stance in relation to everyone else. The secret to being competitive is to do what your competition isn’t doing. Don’t try to do less or be like them. To be sure, there’s a market for the cheapest, but many organizations forget there also is a market for real value. Improving performance isn’t always implementing new ideas or technology. In fact, some of our old-fashioned methods are often far better than many of their more modern replacements. Cutting costs is fine, unless it allows customers to perceive less value. If business isn’t as good as you’d like, consider going back to some of the old ways. Like Dr. Runckel, treat your customers like your friends. It may cost a little more, but it’s worth it when the business comes in. Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States as well as in 12 nations in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax 894-6539; firstname.lastname@example.org; bourqueai.com.