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As far as the customer is concerned, providing good customer service is the only reason you are in business. While you might start out singing that tune, between stiff competition and a floundering economy, your service can wind up playing second fiddle.

“I hear nothing but complaints about the private collectors around here,” reports a Canadian solid waste authority manager. “They are too busy slashing each other's prices to worry about customers service.”

On the other hand, some public sector agencies take the position that they don't need to provide service because their customers are required to use them.

However, successful operations know that building a customer base is not strictly about price; it must include reliable, consistent and quality service.

The Invisible Hand

Of course, the first step is finding customers. In choosing a hauler, “the customer looks at two things: service and price,” says Robert Donovan, solid waste services superintendent for the city of Glendale, Ariz. “When you're not efficient, you're not providing the highest level of service, and you're driving up the customers' price. Our goal is to provide a very high, quality service. I'm not going to be the lowest guy in the neighborhood if you're shopping [by] price, but I'm going to give you the best value for the money.”

Donovan's operation provides service to 49,000 residential units and 1,600 commercial accounts. Because the city is in a nose-to-nose competition with the private sector, it uses a full-time sales coordinator to attract new business.

Donovan's coordinator, Barbara Brosco, set up the city's customer relations program. “The way we develop our new customers is by cold-calling, staying really close to our customer and giving them immediate and exceptional service,” she says. “Our high priority is to be reliable.”

With this effort in mind, Brosco says the city uses referral cards, brochures and other literature as part of its arsenal to grow the city's collection business. But building a customer base requires a team approach, with everyone from the supervisor to the drivers working together to oversee new accounts and to watch the customers' service level, she adds.

For instance, sometimes as companies grow, their service level increases too, Brosco explains. “The quickest way to determine [what service level a customer needs] is through our drivers who are there every week. They're the first ones to notice [any changes in loads.]”

At that point, the driver will contact the inspector who then contacts Brosco. “We accommodate our customers — their hours and the type of service that they need — seven days a week, including holidays,” she says.

Secret Shoppers

Once a business has a steady stable of customers, haulers must ensure clients are satisfied. Sometimes, to handle a large service area with a number of customers, a company such as Waste Management Inc., Houston, will assign a customer relations employee to each city. “Our customer relations employees deal with any issues within the city,” says William Arlington Jr., site manager for Waste Management's Inland Empire operation centered in Corona, Calif.

With 26 commercial routes, 14 roll-off routes and 73 residential routes running out of this site five days per week, Waste Management's challenge is to keep its large number of customers happy, he says. To that end, the company provides employees with customer relations training so that when a customer telephones, employees are prepared and can better understand customer concerns.

This training consists of a variety of activities, including shadowing an experienced fellow employee. “[New employees] will spend two to three weeks just listening to another customer relations staff answer the phone,” Arlington says.

Waste Management also borrows a technique — secret shoppers — from the retail industry to check up on its customer relations employees.

“Basically, all they're doing is shopping,” Arlington explains. The secret shoppers test employees to see if they are asking, “do you need any kind of service?” and “would you like to sign up?”

If customer relations employees aren't doing that, it is reported to Waste Management's staff so they can train employees on areas to improve on. “We go over [the reports] with our employees,” Arlington says.

Additionally, employees are encouraged to ask customers if they have any collection problems, Arlington says. And, Waste Management's corporate office sends out a customer questionnaire to find out how people feel about their service.

Providing good customer service still is critical even in the closed franchise areas, Arlington says. “Customer service doesn't mean anything to a lot of people, especially when you're in a franchise area,” he says. “Some people might have the attitude that we have a franchise and you have to use us. That's the wrong attitude. The issue is customer service, and when the customer calls, the customer has a need. It's our job to try and provide whatever service is needed at that moment — not next week or the week after.”

Keep Your Word

Continuing to provide reliable service keeps customers happy. “If their collection day is on a Tuesday, then make sure that your truck is there on Tuesday,” says David Horne, recycling program manager for the Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), Chesapeake, Va. “Don't miss them. Don't call them and say you're not going to get there today and it may be tomorrow before you get there. People aren't interested in hearing excuses.

“If you have an average product that you're selling but you provide exceptional service with that, people are going to tolerate the product simply because they don't mind paying for exceptional service,” Horne continues. “But if you have an average product and they're getting average service, they're not going to be your customer for very long. People are willing to pay for good service. Word-of-mouth advertising pays big dividends.”

Paint Me a Picture

However, many customers don't have an accurate idea of the collection service level they need, so they buy the least expensive service. This can result in overloaded refuse bins and more work for the collectors.

Enter Waste Management's “Operation Snapshot,” which provides photographic proof that a customer should consider a step-up in collection service, Arlington says.

While on their routes, drivers take pictures with a digital camera, then turn the disks over to the operations staff at the end of each day. The photographs are downloaded with the date and time imprinted on the photo.

“That's our selling tool,” Arlington says. “Operation Snapshot really has done a lot of good, because the guy sitting in the office doesn't see what's going on outside.”

But just pointing out problems with a photograph isn't enough. Once you've signed a customer, you have to go the extra mile to meet their needs, Glendale's Donovan says. For instance, to capture a large regional mall, the city staff agreed to paint their refuse containers in a color scheme that matched the mall's motif.

“When competing against the privates, I made a commitment to paint the containers any color that they wanted,” Donovan says. The mall used a deep purple color, “so we painted their compactors, roll-offs and front loader bins a purple that matches.”

It didn't cost much and, “it makes the customer happy and seals the deal. They like it because it looks good.”

Donovan says he is not worried about muddying the city's corporate image through this approach. “All of our containers — regardless of what color — use a city decal,” he says. “The issue is: Are we simply marketing ourselves or are we making the customer happy? If you make the customer happy, word-of-mouth will get you a tremendous amount of referral business regardless of whether all your containers are the same color.”


In this high-tech Internet age, the Southeastern Public Service Authority has found an old fashioned way to gauge customer service and add new business: radio. SPSA's radio show on a local AM station airs twice a month to promote its services and field calls from a broad range of customers.

“The radio station has been a long-time supporter of SPSA and a lot of our activities,” Horne says. “[The radio station staff frequently appears] at our facility grand openings and ribbon cutting ceremonies. They seemed to be a natural fit because they showed an interest in the environment and supporting those kinds of efforts.”

The first show of the month is dedicated to recycling, according to Horne. Invited guests include some of SPSA's business customers who buy recycling services and give testimony about how well the program has been working for them, Horne says. “It's a live call-in show, so we field a lot of calls on recycling and other programs and services that SPSA offers. The host of the show is very energetic, asks good questions and keeps the conversation and dialogue stimulated.”

The second show of the month focuses on other solid waste issues from a regional or global standpoint, Horne says. “There are different formats on the two shows.”

Tending Your Keep

The best way to build a customer base is keep the customers you already have. Once you've invested the time and effort in getting business in the first place, providing good, quality service with timely follow-through is essential.

Additionally, looking for ways to improve service can add value to your business. Because making a commitment and following through to completion to ensure customers are satisfied are critical components to success, Glendale's Brosco says.

“A local property manager that I met with continually had problems with her private vendors over the years,” she says. “It's a pretty good size property. We took over, and [the customer initially] was very leery. She said that everyone else had told her the same thing. I got in her face and promised her that we would make sure what we said we we're going to do is what would happen.

“We have done that, and in the process have picked up at least three or four of her other large properties since that time,” Brosco adds. “And she has been very happy with us.”

Lynn Merrill is the director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif.