Speaking of Service


One Sunday, a 24-hour printing company phoned Hal Becker to tell him they wouldn’t be able to fill his order for new business cards.

Becker was aggravated. The store, after all, had filled the same order before with no problems. But that wasn’t the most galling part of the experience.

The store placed the call at 1:40 am.

Did he complain? You bet.

But Becker, who will be in Cincinnati Jan. 28 as the keynote sneaker at the Business Courier’s Book of Lists breakfast from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., went further.

He also turned the print shop fiasco and other similar experiences into a new book “Lip Service” which was published last year.

Prior to the sleepbusting call, Becker, 44, had already made a name as the author of the sales book “Can I Have Five Minutes of Your Time?” and as a public speaker.

With “Lip Service” Becker offers advice on how companies can turn a single sale into a loyal customer by providing good service. The book looks at Becker’ s own experiences with at times laughably bad customer service and how the companies should have handled the situations. Each anecdote highlights a fundamental rule of customer service, such as:

Focus on what the client wants, not what the company wants.

Do more than the customer expects.

Learn to say, "I am sorry.”

Empower people on the front lines of customer service to fix problems.

That last example, empowering employees, is one of the best tools to ensure good customer service, said Nat Comisar, managing director of the Maisonette Group, which includes the five-star Maisonette restaurant downtown and four other local restaurants.

“That waiter or waitress is just as smart as I am,” Comisar said “If they have to listen to a customer problem and then go get a manager and then go back and re-listen to the problem, now the complaint has escalated. The waiter or waitress. . .should be able to say. "I'll just take it off your check," or "I’m sorry about that, let me buy you a drink."

Becker’s third book, tentatively titled “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” will be a return to sales techniques, he said.

Becker’s own story is more than a tale of one man’s road to success. It also illustrates an entrepreneur's strategy of building new business ventures on experiences gained in a previous job.

For Becker, that strategy started with his first job, selling office equipment for Xerox Corp. He said he was immediately impressed with the company’s sales training program and he decided to follow it to the letter.

The plan worked. At 22 years old, Hecker became the company’ s No. 1 salesperson.

Six years later, Becker turned his sales skills toward his first enpreneurial venture, a customer service telemarketing firm called Direct Opinions. He hired homemakers to make follow-up telephone calls for companies interested in knowing how their customers felt about recent purchases.

To get potential clients to try the new idea, Becker tried a number of lures, including a free 20-call trial. His sales skills paid off. When Becker sold the company in 1990, it had operations in nine cities and was placing 2 million calls each year for clients.

“I was going to retire,” he said. But 28 minutes into his first day of retirement, Becker decided he was bored and began thinking about his dream of becoming a speaker.

“I thought to be a speaker I had to have a book," he said.

So he wrote “Can I Have Five Minutes of Your Time?”, a book about successful selling techniques that is now in its 11th printing.

The book and his successful career with Xerox and Direct Opinions propelled Becker into such a successful speaking career that he no longer needs to use his cold-call sales techniques; his work is entirely based on referrals. He commands $7,000 for a full-day seminar and has made as many as 170 presentations in a single year.

Despite all of his energy and enthusiasm, the work is physically exhausting and traveling is lonely, Becker said. He is trying to cut back the number of presentations he gives, completing 150 in 1998 and hoping for 120 in 1999.

One of the ways he is accomplishing that goal is to make himself accessible to readers. He published his phone number in the back of both books and he said he returns every message he gets from readers.

A second part of Becker’s customer service effort is to keep his business relationships as simple as possible, he said. He doesn’t use business contracts, preferring to simply schedule his presentations and have organizations pay him when he is done.

“I just believe in the old general store concept,” he said. “It’s relationships.”

Perhaps most impressively, Becker has never missed or canceled a speaking engagement. To make it to his scheduled city, he has missed countless family events, hitch-hiked from Chicago to Cleveland when bad weather canceled his flight and put off admitting himself to a hospital when he had pneumonia until after his presentation.

“That’s the sucky part of the job,” he said.

But to Becker, the sacribces are worth realizing a dream.

"This is the closest I'll ever be to being a rock star,” he said. “And if anyone tells you they don’t want to be a rock star, they are lying.”

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