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Customer Service, Italian Style

Nowadays, we complain nearly all of the time about how few businesses remember how to provide quality service to their customers. But a recent trip to Italy not only reminded me that the art of service is not dead, but that providing outstanding service is the key to almost any successful business. Here are a few well-worn but important principles that I was reminded of during that trip:

The Customer Always Comes First: When you patronize a retail store or restaurant in Italy, it is almost always the owner of the business that takes care of you. It's not that there aren't other employees; other staff members are usually busy straightening inventory or dealing with deliveries. But dealing with customers is simply too important a task to be delegated.

Product Knowledge Is King: Remember your last retail shopping experience, where you had to ask three different sales people to get an answer to a simple question about a product? Not in Italy. Every salesperson we dealt with was a product expert, whether it was about the kind of material used in a garment, the amount of warmth that various types of glove leather would provide, or how a piece of gold jewelry was crafted.

Be Proud Of What You Offer: Retail specialty stores in Italy typically offer goods in a wide range of prices to suit every budget. But you'll never catch a shop owner steering you toward their expensive wares by denigrating the quality of their less expensive merchandise. If it's good enough for them to sell, it's good enough for you to buy.

No Job Is Too Small Or Unimportant: Every morning, the streets of Florence were filled with shopkeepers sweeping their sidewalks, or polishing their doorways or cleaning their display windows. And, when there aren't customers to serve, there are shelves to be organized, merchandise to be tidied and stock to be added. These are important tasks that, no matter how menial they appear, help to create a positive business image with the customer.

Competitors Are Not Your Enemies: More than once, we were referred to another shop when the one that we were visiting did not have what we were looking for. More interested in building a long-term relationship than in making a quick sale, shopkeepers in Italy readily refer customers to competitors who can better meet an immediate need, knowing that the best customers will remember who referred them.

Running A Business Should Be A Joy, Not A Job: Retailers in Italy work hours comparable to their U.S. counterparts. However, we never once met a tired or grumpy shopkeeper who didn't have the time to give us as much attention as the first customer of the day, and who didn't go out of their way to make us feel welcome in their shop and in their city.

William von Achen is president of Strategic Management Resources, an executive coaching and management consulting firm offering advice and counsel to business owners and senior executives. For more information visit our web site at http://www.smrweb.com

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