Making the Right Moves

A few simple steps can help you gain and retain customers.

When it comes to building and maintaining a customer base, haulers must choose their moves wisely. More than just pawns in a game of chess, customers have the power to make or break a business. Consequently, it's important to listen to and be attentive to their needs.

This may require acquiescing a few things in the beginning. But ultimately, a few strategic moves here and there could guarantee winning the game of business.

Attentive to All the Pieces

For example, Severn, Md.-based Pinnacle Waste Inc.'s president and CEO David Hood takes the time to personally answer customer calls. This is because being able to talk to the owner or someone who is familiar with the account can be vital to keeping current customers satisfied and growing your business, he says.

“We don't have a salesman. We don't have brochures and mailings. So the whole reason [we're successful] is word of mouth,” he adds. “The folks in the hotel or commercial real estate industry have associations, and if you do well for one [company], they'll go to their meetings and do the selling for you.”

Similarly, West Central Sanitation in Minnesota has tried to become the hometown hauler for every local community it serves by providing good, old-fashioned service to both new and existing customers.

While there are numerous techniques for increasing customer communication and spreading the word about the kinds of services a company offers, keeping the customer is the most important thing, says Don Williamson, whose family founded West Central.

Keeping customers happy requires a two-pronged approach, he explains. While attracting new customers is necessary, keeping existing ones happy is critical. By continuing to serve “every customer you've got, then you won't go out of business,” Williamson says.

A happy customer can be the most effective form of advertising, he adds. “You can lose sight of that when you're trying to grow.”

Sticking to the Strategy

Thus, beyond promising to provide good service, living up to that promise is critical.

Hood notes that Pinnacle collected just $4,000 in revenue in its first month less than three years ago, but now the company has grown into a $4 million a year operation. He attributes this growth to providing good customer service.

“We answer the phones,” Hood explains. “[When customers call, they're] talking to the owner of the company. We're very particular about who works here and what their attitudes are. You don't get a recorded message unless it's midnight, and you don't get someone who doesn't know anything about your account. Our drivers, dispatchers, mechanics and billing people are well-educated about our customers' needs.”

As part of providing good service, Pinnacle also works around the client's schedule, not the other way around, Hood says. The company runs staggered shifts throughout the day to extend pickup hours. Additionally, while Pinnacle does not maintain a night shift, it can pick up trash at odd hours, as well as on weekends and holidays.

“Every customer has my mobile number and has used it over the past two and a half years,” Hood says. “There's not a customer who has called us for an emergency pull who wasn't taken care of. We have people readily available who can do emergency service. It's the advantage of being a small company and knowing the pulse of the customer.”

To maintain that kind of service, Hood says he uses some employees on an emergency basis that “are not the same guys who were up at 3 a.m. that morning.” All drivers carry a two-way radio that they carry with them 24 hours per day. And drivers are given the opportunity, from the senior driver on down, to turn down the pickup.

Hood says his “drivers love it” because he pays them “royally” for making emergency pickups. And the employee costs pay off because by keeping a flexible service schedule, customers are happy. After all, emergency service means customers can count on not being faced with rotting trash at their location over the weekend, and then getting a knock on the door from the health department on Monday morning, Hood says.

Beyond going the extra mile, consistent service — even in the face of growth — is essential. Many in the industry, according to Hood, talk about how large haulers have lost accounts over the years as they grew so large that they stopped providing the personal service that originally attracted customers to the company.

“The personal service goes away,” Hood says. “Customers become account numbers, and companies no longer are the name and the face that customers knew. You can't call someone and say ‘remember me.’ When the customer calls, he's put on hold by someone who has zero knowledge of what the account is about. It's handled generically with no passion and no feeling.”

Even if a customer's contract does not end until six or 12 months later, a customer's loyalty can be destroyed in that single telephone exchange, Hood says.

Understanding the Game

To further ensure good customer service, everyone in the organization must understand the business. Hood recommends holding education and training sessions during staff meetings so that every employee learns about safety regulations, production issues and the needs of new and existing accounts.

“As we bring on large, sensitive accounts such as the Marriott, the Hilton, Watergate or any other hotels, we discuss the large accounts,” Hood says. “We let everyone be aware of the needs of that account and how important it is, who the contact people are and what could go wrong. So our drivers and dispatchers and billing people can look at this account and understand its special needs.”

To determine a customer's needs, haulers must listen. This starts even before the client and company sign the contract.

“Listening skills are the most important piece of equipment you can have,” Hood says. “There are a lot of equipment and resources to help determine what a customer needs, but you don't really need them if you sit in front of a customer and let him tell you what he needs.” If the customer has been around for a while, he'll know what he's talking about because he's seen the mistakes other companies have made, Hood says.

All too often, a hauling company's representatives will try to overwhelm a customer with their experience and their ideas about the best means to handle an account, Hood continues. The contract is signed, but the client may not have had the opportunity to explain his needs or to propose ideas for making his relationship with the hauler work better. “So, the job gets fouled up because [the hauler] never listened to what the customer really wanted,” Hood says.

Additionally, sometimes a hauler may hesitate to suggest a more efficient way of handling a client's waste because it might increase costs, he adds. “Sometimes when you look at a piece of equipment that's $30,000, you don't propose it,” he says, but “I changed from a regular compactor to a pre-crusher for a customer. [The customer] made the suggestion, and it suited his situation better, but I never suggested it because it was so expensive. Now he's already paid for it and we install the equipment next week. It's like the old saying ‘if you don't ask, you'll never know.’”

Encourage Feedback

Without a doubt, it's important to take seriously the suggestions of current customers. “When it comes to individual subscriptions, we've been around for 50 years and we've built a lot of relationships with a lot of people,” says Tom Agema, general manager for East Hazelwood, Ill.-based Homewood Disposal. “When you bump into someone and he makes a comment, don't just say ‘yeah,’ say, ‘ok, I'll take a look at it.’”

Agema says he'll take customer suggestions back to his office and if his staff thinks customers will like the change, he'll find a way to implement it. He also recommends working closely with the staff or village board when dealing with a municipal contract. Each community is different, he says, so it is impossible to generalize about the nuances of service required by these organizations. However, “they usually have a handle on what their residents need,” he says, “so we'll usually work with them very closely and they'll tell us what they're looking for.”

To encourage feedback from commercial and residential clients, companies can conduct formal surveys of their customers or rely on informal contact by managers and sales personnel. And by becoming a part of the community in which the company operates, good will can be generated, which, in turn, can be transformed into more customers.

West Central Sanitation has made community involvement a critical element of its marketing plan. The company serves a large rural area encompassing six counties 100 miles west of Minneapolis. To promote its name, Williamson says the company regularly mails brochures and letters from Williamson. The company also buys ads and writes letters to the editor in the local newspaper. And, West Central advertises on the radio.

“I do a lot of radio,” Williamson says. “I sometimes will make it a newsy commercial — it may be a tip or news of a recycling change. I try to make it friendly so that people think that I'm talking to them personally. People say, ‘I heard you on the radio today,’ so it does have some effect.”

To further get his name out, Williamson says he joined the Chamber of Commerce. “If you're going to be the local, private company in a community, then the price isn't such a big deal,” he says. “We're a locally owned, locally controlled, responsive company. Customers know that if they want to call and talk to the owner, they can do that.”

Several years ago, West Central began setting out residential carts emblazoned with the logo “Good Neighbors,” Williamson points out. Eventually, this message evolved into “Good Neighbors You've Come to Trust.”

“When we [produce] a brochure or we come into a community, we encourage people to give us a chance to prove to them that we're good neighbors you can trust,” Williamson says. This means the company frequently joins with local banks, grocery stores or other major businesses to show its support in the 35 communities it serves. For instance, West Central donates resources to local charities such as food banks, American Cancer Society Relays for Life and United Way drives.

“We had a school district that was in trouble after running out of money for activities,” Williamson recalls. “We decided we were going into the community with our services, so I went to the school board and asked if I could give X amount of dollars if a customer signed up for our service. No one had done that before.

“I wasn't going to do it without school board approval because I didn't want to do something that looks bad,” Williamson continues. But after securing an agreement from them, West Central launched its service and gained an opportunity for new customers to contribute a part of their hauling fees to the school.

“We signed up 500 to 600 customers,” he says. “We did a full-color mailing with a response card. When I gave the check to the school board, we put a picture in the paper and [the response] kept growing. [Customers] chose us because they could do something good with their money, too.”

Individually, company employees also are encouraged to be active in the community, serving at everything from parades to civic club breakfasts. Employees wear clothing — hats, polo shirts or jackets — bearing the company logo, which further illustrating that West Central is involved in the local communities.

After all, Williamson says, when it comes to residential service in particular, the stronger the relationship with the customer, the less price is an issue. “The more they know me on a first-name basis, the more price drops out of the picture,” he says.

Jeff Johnson, president of Going Garbage & Recycling, Inc. in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, just outside of Green Bay, say his company also tries to make itself known amongst the local community, by being well-represented in cyberspace with its website

The website keeps information organized and accessible, and provides an easy way to refer customers to a source for answers to their questions about services, the location of recycling sites, schedule information and even employment opportunities with the company, Johnson says.

“It's really important to maintain a consistent level of service and use the most effective means possible to communicate with potential customers so that they know you're there,” he continues. “If at any point they become dissatisfied with their current hauler you want your name to be available to them.”

Ultimately, it's important to maintain good customer service and for employees to be attentive, Johnson says. By listening to customers and soliciting their information, a company can go the extra mile to keep customers happy and on-board.

For example, he recalls when one of his drivers observed a customer building an enclosure for his container. “It appeared that the enclosure dimensions were going to be too small,” Johnson says. The driver relayed the information to Johnson, and he “was able to advise them that they needed to increase the dimensions, or else the container would not have been serviceable,” he says.

As another example, Hood says if a hotel manager tells a driver that he would prefer that the truck not idle its engine outside the loading dock at midnight, the driver should pass the message on to the dispatcher and make a modification.

But if the message is written on a note and then lost or forgotten so that it never shows up on the dispatch ticket, the relationship can be damaged. That's where technology comes in, Hood says.

Pinnacle Waste uses software that allows the customers' information to be entered in the notes section of the program. “Our software program in the dispatch office allows the dispatcher to pull up the account as that driver is calling in,” Hood says. “In the notes section, the dispatcher can put in the information so that when that ticket is printed out, the directions will be on it.”

Overall, once a hauler has successfully met its customers' needs, the company should not only continue to provide that same level of service to keep customers under contract, but also turn customers into advocates for the company's services. To do that, however, a company must make use of every resource — encouraging feedback and addressing potential problems — to make sure it remains in the game.

Randy Southerland is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer.