Customer Encounters of the Close Kind

Providing good service once in a while just doesn't cut it in the service-intensive waste management industry. However, keeping customers through consistently good service can reduce costs, win new customers and ultimately could mean the difference between an operation's success or failure.

This is because "business is very competitive," says Liz Boddie, commercial accounts representative for the city of Rochester, N.Y.'s solid waste management division. "To differentiate yourself [from competitors], you have to respond to your customers' needs. If they're not happy and not getting service, they'll switch - even if it costs them 5 percent to 10 percent more."

According to Boddie, Rochester tries to provide its approximately 3,000 commercial and 70,000 residential customers the most cost-effective, least intrusive way of removing waste and recyclables with its 80-truck fleet.

"We have to make our customers happy," she says. "Otherwise, they won't use our service."

To build customer relations, the city provides a 24-hour customer telephone line to answer customer questions. In addition, it maintains a website that allows customers to browse for information [ us] and enforces a 48-hour response time for complaint resolution. "We can respond very quickly to any commercial or residential need, and that's one of our biggest selling features," Boddie says. "I don't know that our competitors can do that."

Consistent service is key to remaining competitive, agrees Carol Donovan, a sales representative for Waste Industries Inc., Raleigh, N.C. "If you commit to something for the customer, then deliver," she says. "[Customers] always remember excellent service and never forget poor service. If you do not deliver what the customer wants and expects, there always is someone out there who will."

Once Waste Industries identifies an unsatisfied customer, it services the account immediately. If an employee has made an error, the company's Quality Service Guarantee assures service for free if the problem is not corrected within one business day.

When merging and acquiring businesses, good service can help waste companies keep existing accounts from switching to competitors and also can help businesses win over new accounts.

"Mergers and acquisitions can affect business dramatically," admits Lis Fountain, sales and marketing representative for Atlanta-based Robertson Sanitation, a division of Republic Industries, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

"Integrating a customer [from a recently acquired waste company] is not usually a problem, but there are a lot of legal agreements and service changes. Some are easy; others make you sit there with a bottle of aspirin." It just depends on the acquisition's conditions, she says.

To handle its approximately 40,000 residential accounts, Robertson drivers are instructed that "customers are always right," Fountain says. "Drivers have guidelines on what they can and can't do." For example, they can't intrude on personal property, and if they are unable to pick something up, they must provide a customer door hanger explaining why.

In addition, Robertson tries to eliminate confusion by sending a newsletter out with every bill and letting the public know that it can be reached via a customer service phone line, e-mail address, fax and soon, a website.

"If we can't make our customers happy, we're going to have major problems," Fountain explains. "But, we do prosper if we make them happy and can keep and grow our accounts."

Integrating New Accounts Typically in most collection operations, when new customers contract service, they are added to the route sheet immediately so that drivers know to pick up their waste.

In Waste Industries' case, "either myself or my customer service rep will contact the customer within a couple of days to let him know what his scheduled pick-up day is," Donovan says. "I also follow up shortly afterward to make sure that the container was delivered, set to their satisfaction and is being serviced properly."

Going the extra service mile pays off, as satisfied customers can lead to potential new business.

Donovan says she recently called on an account who informed her that their parking lot was being used by surveyors. After some investigation, Donovan learned that they were surveying the adjoining property to build a new shopping center - information she eventually used to capitalize on the business.

Know Thy Customer Understanding customer needs is key to providing good service. Put yourself in your customers' shoes, recommends Nat Egosi, president of Melville, N.Y.-based RRT Design & Construction.

"Customers want to be treated the same way that you would want to be treated [by your suppliers]," he says.

Keep in mind, however, that waste management customers are different from those in other service industries because they have only brief contact with their service provider, says Birgitta Von Schlumperger, director of Corporate Consulting Group, Portland, Ore., which provides customer service training and lists Oregon-based Metro Portland as among its clients. Brief contact puts waste companies in a difficult customer service position, Von Schlumperger explains.

At a facility, contact is limited to the few minutes it takes to unload and pay the bill. On the collection side of the business, customer contact with the hauler occurs primarily when something goes awry - there is a missed pickup or the customer did not set out his waste correctly.

"[Waste management] employees sometimes have to deal with ungracious and hostile people in their jobs," Von Schlumperger adds, "so they have to learn to deal with difficult customers effectively and understand what it's like on the other side of the fence."

Thus, teaching employees how to control their reactions and be sensitive in dealing with adversity is key, she suggests. Also, companies can help by offering their employees support and appreciation.

"Incentives are critical," says Brett Chesbro, president and CEO of Madison Avenue Seminars, Portland, Ore., which has trained employees of companies such as Pepsico, Safeway and Metro Portland on customer service. "From an employee standpoint, why should he go out of the way to provide better-than-average service?"

There has to be something in it for the employee, Chesbro says, whether it's in the form of time off with pay, event tickets or even training that isn't job-related.

"[The public] today definitely understands that the waste and recyclables that they generate will be handled by someone who is charging them money," RRT's Egosi says. Consequently, customers expect good service in return for their payment.

Waste operations' customers can't always "have it their way," as they can at Burger King. They must take into consideration routing and scheduling restrictions, and facility hours. Nevertheless, customers expect the most timely and cost-effective service that collectors and facility owners can provide.

Missed pick-ups, erratic service and recyclable item stipulations are frequent complaints, says John Abernathy, manager of solid waste operations for Sacramento County, Calif. If the complaint is about missed pick-up, the message is logged, then passed to the field supervisor who radios a driver to try to pick up the waste either that day or by the next morning.

Teach Customers Well Proper and thorough customer education can eliminate confusion as to what recyclables are acceptable. To provide good service to its own haulers and to other haulers that use Sacramento's 3,500-ton landfill and two transfer stations, the county holds quarterly meetings with drivers to discuss ways to improve service.

The county also broadcasts messages on a local cable access program as part of its public outreach program.

To educate its collection accounts, Sacramento sends quarterly newsletters to its 162,000 residential customers, prints messages on utility bills, acts out recycling skits at schools, hosts a backyard composting program with a demonstration area and organizes community and public education events.

"We spend approximately $350,000 per year of our $60 million budget on public education and it's absolutely worthwhile," Abernathy says. "We're in a competitive environment in California, so it's important that the customer understand our services. We recently submitted a proposal to provide collection for a newly incorporated city and won based primarily on our service."

Outstanding service also helped Sacramento win the state's California Gold Celebration Public Sector Teams award, which recognized the county's customer service training program for its 325 employees.

"If we didn't have good programs and services, I'm sure our board of supervisors would put us up for competitive bid and offer the services to a private company," Abernathy says.

Customers don't necessarily need to know how an operation works, says Vickie Swainson, who handles customer service calls for the city of Oxnard, Calif., and was named "employee of the third quarter" based on her good service. They just need to know enough to understand how your service affects them, she says.

For example, new waste customers in Oxnard typically establish their service over the phone, Swainson says. However, because the city uses a split-container system and a separate greenwaste system, new customers need to be told how to separate trash. [see "Making Co-Collection Work," World Wastes May 1997, page 54.]

To be as detailed as possible, Oxnard mails a brochure to all new customers that explains the system and suggests how to educate the entire household. Customers also are informed about who to contact, facility tours and the city's weekly television show, which features the dual-compartment system.

The city maintains a bank of eight phones for customers who have questions or complaints. If the service rep can't answer the question right away, callers are asked if they have time to hold, during which time they hear a recording that describes the city's services, Swainson says.

Evaluate and Implement Once employees know how to treat customers and once customers understand their solid waste services, it's important to determine how you can improve service further.

Several good ideas can be sprung from surveying customers. For example, Oxnard originally offered a 105-gallon container, but then found that many senior citizens needed a smaller container because the large size was either too heavy or they weren't generating enough trash, Swainson says. "In its place, we decided to offer a 60-gallon container, which has been met with great response."

Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), Houston, maintains a Customer Satisfaction Index based on random, quarterly surveys of customers about billing, containers, drivers, safety and scheduled service.

"The results are used to make necessary changes and improve performance," says Dorothy Beeler, a company spokeswoman. Beeler says employee evaluations take into account the index, "so that as the company improves its service, employees are compensated [accordingly]." In the past seven quarters, BFI's index has improved, she notes.

Feedback is integral to a successful customer service program, says Madison Avenue's Chesbro. "Many companies are lazy and don't want to put forth the effort. Customer service takes effort, costs money and is time-consuming. The results, however, speak for themselves." Success can be measured by a complaint decrease and a compliment increase.

Metro Portland is a prime example. Its municipally owned Metro South transfer station originally was built in the early '80s to handle 400 transactions per day. However, business was much more brisk: Metro currently handles nearly 700 public transactions and 500 commercial transactions per day. The result was long wait times and frustrated customers.

To eliminate commercial and residential customers haggling over who's first in line and to allow for more recovery from commercial loads, Metro widened the driveway and created separate lines, says Penny Erickson, operations supervisor for Metro's regional environmental management division. A new scalehouse also moves customers in and out quickly.

Commercial customers now are directed through an automated billing and weighing system that speeds up weigh times and controls lines without the additional staff, Erickson says. [see "Transfer Station Rehab," World Wastes July 1997, page 56.]

Inside the facility, more changes have been made. Signs are placed on recycling bins so customers can easily identify where to dump their materials. Flyers also are produced in both English and Spanish to inform customers of what services to expect.

Metro also bid out the transportation in its facility and required that the winning company have employees on the tip floor to guide customers. "The public automatically had more assistance without escalating our costs," Erickson says.

To further measure its service level, Metro held a focus group. [Customers] said they had trouble backing into one of the bays because of poor lighting," Madison's Chesbro says. They also mentioned they had gotten flat tires because of scattered debris.

Metro responded by adding new lighting to the bay and using magnets and brooms to eliminate nails that had been dumped by roofers using the facility. The additional employees who now help customers navigate the bay also have been issued reflective protective clothing and equipment.

"Metro got instant feedback [from customers] saying how much better the conditions were," Chesbro says.

Today, Metro continues to survey its progress, giving customers comment cards with paid postage to send in suggestions. Responses help Metro measure whether or not it has met its performance goals and provide fodder for improvements, Erickson says.

"We're looking for ways to make the public comfortable and happy with our service," Erickson says. "The more we can do to make the customer's time quicker and efficient, the less costly it is for us."

Patricia-Anne Tom is the associate editor for World Wastes.

The following customer service tips were compiled from several waste industry veterans. 1. Set up a formal customer service training program for employees.

2. Treat employees like royalty and reward them for outstanding service. They will treat customers accordingly.

3. Empower employees to solve customer service problems. Set goals to provide good service and do what it takes to achieve those goals.

4. Develop an on-going dialogue with customers. This helps measure how well your company is doing and involves customers in the decision-making process. Customers also should be informed of any change in their service.

5. Set up a suggestion program for customers and employees requesting ideas, praise and suggestions for improvement.

6. Continually assess customer needs and develop techniques so that they can be better met.

7. Realize that customers are judging you on every single encounter they have with your company. Make each moment in front of a customer count. 8. Set up a "secret shopper" program in which an independent firm "shops" your company to find out how you are doing. Then, make improvements based on the secret shopper's results.

9. Respond openly to customer inquiries and return calls or messages as soon as possible. Also, respond to all feedback. It's great when a customer can see an idea they had implemented. It shows that you care.

10. Do what you say you're going to do. You must follow through, follow through, follow through.