Businesses reaping rewards by ramping up customer service [La Crosse Tribune, Wis.]By Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Sept. 02--Customer service's glory days may seem to have passed us by, and only older folks can recall the era when gas station attendants swarmed your vehicle to check the oil and the tires while filling 'er up and cleaning the windshield.
Times have changed, but businesses these days still scramble to gain customers by offering conveniences.
Customers' expectations have changed, and so have businesses.
Take home delivery of water, for instance -- and we're not talking the usual faucet delivery system.
La Crosse Premium Water delivers to people who want to slake their thirst but aren't satisfied with what comes out of the tap and don't want to wrestle with cases or jugs at stores.
The company is tapping that market for an increasing percentage of its customer base, said Jeff Schaitel, plant operations manager.
"We've turned a lot more toward the residential," Schaitel said. "Back in the days when this started, people said 'Bottled WHAT?' A lot of residents didn't comprehend that they could have bottled water delivered."
The company began in 1986 as a water care and softener business but moved into bottled water in 1992, focusing mostly on businesses that wanted bubblers for one reason or another, he said.
"Within the past five years, we saw the need for residential service," Schaitel said.
Before that market evolution, businesses accounted for about 98 percent of the company's customers. Now, the ratio is 70 percent businesses to 30 percent residential, said Schaitel, whose company delivers to a wide swath of the Coulee Region and beyond.
Having a 5-gallon jug with a spigot handy in the home has advantages that may not be obvious at first.
"It keeps the kids out of the fridge and cuts down on pop consumption," Schaitel said. "We don't realize how much soda we drink. In our house, we reduced pop consumption from a couple of cases a week to a couple of cans."
The reusable jugs also are more environmentally friendly and cost-effective than the ubiquitous small bottles of water, he said. Customers can get a 5-gallon bottle for $6, and they can rent or buy coolers and other containers.
With your water supply secured but still needing victuals, you might be on the hunt for groceries but want to hit the aisles without children in tow.
Festival Foods offers a helping hand with its Tot Spots, where parents can drop off children between 18 months and 7 years of age while shopping. Festival initiated the service when it opened its Onalaska store in 1991, and it now is available in 14 of the Wisconsin-based chain's 16 locations, said company spokesman Michael Siakpere.
U.S. Postal Service contract stations are available at 14 Festival stores. The chain started them after customers buying stamps also wanted mailing options, and the Postal Service started contracting out such stations, Siakpere said.
Another customer comfort in Festival's cart is its partnership with Degen Berglund Pharmacy and Gundersen Lutheran Express Care to have independent outlets in three La Crosse-area stores.
"A few years ago, we saw a nationwide trend of these services being offered in supermarkets and agreed this would be an added convenience for our guests," Siakpere said
Talk about convenience: The World Wide Web initially appeared to give online businesses such an edge that they would crush bricks-and-mortar stores in the new era of 'round-the-clock shopping from home.
But the real stores pushed back to compete with virtual ones with links to the Internet and social media.
Restaurants also use the Web to ensure their places in the food chain.
For instance, Dibs Cafe in Winona has snagged 637 "likes" on its Facebook page since the restaurant opened 1 1/2 years ago.
"It's a nice place to post pictures of our food, and I really like to get the feedback," said owner Auralee Likes (merely coincidence that her name mirror's Facebook's "like" function). "Customers like to comment on a good experience they've had."
Likes also uses Facebook to promote events in the theater above Dibs, where offerings include films, music events and a flea market, in addition to being available to rent.
"It's a nice, inexpensive way to reach people," Likes said.
Seconding that emotion is Kevin Arnold, owner of the Hungry Peddler on the South Side of La Crosse.
"I use it to list the daily special people can get that day," Arnold said. "A lot of people don't plan a week ahead to go out and eat. But they can look for the daily special and decide to come in."
With 868 "likes" on the Peddler's page, customers seem to be hungry for that spontaneous information.
The Internet also has turned the term "bankers' hours" into an anachronism.
Both businesses and the public are turning increasingly to computers to manage their finances 24 hours a day, said Kevin Zagrodnick, an assistant vice president at Stoddard-based River Bank, which has 11 locations in the Coulee Region.
"With advances in technology, they have access to this information from a computer, a tablet or their phone," Zagrodnick said.
Many business customers use online banking to manage payroll, he said, adding, "This eliminates the need for a paper check and provides their employee with the convenience of not needing to find time to run to the bank on payday."
Increasing numbers of customers use River Bank's "Bill Pay" feature, he said. "This allows customers to pay their bills directly from their checking account without having to send a check or pay for postage."
Customers can set up automatic bill payments or they can pay bills manually, with a monthly reminder from the bank, Zagrodnick said.
Still other bank customers prefer to interact with real human tellers, which is easy enough on weekdays and during limited hours on Saturdays. But patrons often come up blank when checking for Sunday service -- unless they go to a grocery store that happens to have a bank branch, too.
For example, Associated Bank has branches in 40 supermarkets, including Woodman's Market in Onalaska and some Festivals. You might find a US Bank or Altra Federal Credit Union in other Festival stores.
The supermarket branches are open on Sundays because "once we decided to be in that type of environment, we had to be there when the customers are," said Tim Medinger, retail district manager for the Green Bay-based Associated.
Bank branches in grocery stores generally are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, but they vary on Sundays, depending on the bank.
Medinger revealed another customer courtesy: Associated's "10-minute rule." He confided that, unofficially, wink-wink, Associated banks will open 10 minutes before their formal opening and 10 minutes after stated closing time.
Chuckling, he explained this curtsy to customers: "Everybody's watch is different."
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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