Winning customers


SOLON - Encouraged by the success of his first book, “Can I Have 5 Minutes of Your Time,” Hal Becker was eager to write a sequel also geared toward sales and marketing executives.

While he was struggling to overcome a case of writer’s block about three years ago, his telephone rang one Sunday during the wee hours. The annoying call was from a printer informing Becker that his business cards couldn’t be printed because the shop’s paper cutter was broken. The printer also gave him names and telephone numbers of a few other print shops where Becker could print the cards.

“What crappy customer service was that?” Becker says. “He woke me up at 2 a.m. to tell me that he couldn’t print my cards. He could have waited for a few more hours. He was open ‘till 4 p.m. that day.”

Though Becker lost some sleep, the call helped him get over his writer’s block, opening a whole new vista for the sequel Becker wanted to write. No wonder the core of his second book, “Lip Service,” is poor customer service and ways to prevent it.

Drawing from first-hand experiences at stores, shopping malls and major corporations, the Solon resident explains the importance of good customer service and the simple secrets of achieving it. The 262-page book, priced at $17.95, is peppered with vignettes of sales clerks and marketing executives, subtly exposing their mistakes and ignorance about the products they sell.

“Go to any computer store, the sales people won’t be able to answer your questions,” he explains. “Customers may know more about the software than they.” In his book, Becker brands such establishments as “Brain dead electronic stores.” He elaborates sales horror stories in the chapter “Computer Hell 1 and Computer Hell 2,” in which two salespersons provide him with totally inaccurate descriptions about the same computer.

Becker, a graduate of John Carroll University with a degree in sociology, takes sales and marketing blunders, dissects them and explains why customers are turned off. “It’s easy to attract customers,” he asserts. “But it's difficult to make them happy. The purpose of this book is to send a message. This book is one guy’s story of poor service from many different providers and a lesson in what each company should have done to correct the poor service.”

He emphasizes the importance of continuous training for sales and marketing personnel. As an example, he says that Nordstrom is well-known for its customer service. “People who work there had worked in other department stores that didn’t do well,” he explains. “They are successful here because they had been trained by Nordstrom. Their training is superb. A lot of companies have policies that are stupid.”

Citing another example of effective sales training, Becker says the Ritz-Carlton hotels emphasize to employees that "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."

His first book, which obviously deals with the art of selling, climbed high on the sales charts soon after its publication in 1993. It became a national bestseller with nine reprints. More than 50,000 copies have been sold so far, according to Becker, a Cleveland Heights native.

Along with the fame came a flurry of invitations to speak at sales seminars and conferences from corporations, trade associations and organizations.

On an average, he attends more than 170 speaing engagements in the United States as well as abroad.

Speaking on sales and customer service is a passion he developed during his younger days, says Becker, who was inducted into the Heights Hall of Fame 1995.

But the calling truly came while attending sales training in 1977 at Xerox Corp. where he worked as a salesman. After listening to two keynote speakers, Becker promised himself "to become speakers like them. That's exactly what I want to do in my life, to be on the lecture circuit," he recalls.

In 1982, Becker founded Direct Opinions, which specializes in telemarketing, follow-up survey of customer satisfaction and opinion polls. The firm grew into an international chain, with branches in Canada, conducting two million telephone calls per year.

Impressed by his marketing strategy, a major corporation invited Becker to speak at its meetings and conventions. It was the first step toward fulfilling his commitment and in 1990, he sold Direct Opinions to become a full-time speaker.

Becker, 43, says that his own experience and observations coupled with knowledge gained from books makes him an effective speaker.

Success didn’t come easy for Becker, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 28. His ebullient demeanor disguises the toll of the cancer and the rigors of more than eight years of chemotherapy. As a reminder, he carries a photograph taken during his chemotherapy days.

“Whenever I’m upset or frustrated, I look at the photograph,” he says, producing a picture from his wallet.

Cancer hasn’t dampened his spirit, he says. "Every day is a bonus day for me."

To help other cancer patients, Becker donates a part of the proceeds from his books to cancer research. He also took the initiative in establishing a cancer hotline and the Cancer Survivors Park in University Heights.

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