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Making the ordinary extraordinary

When challenged by others about why customers buy from our respective companies, many of us will fall into the trap of saying things such as “Because of our great service,” or “We sell only high-quality products.” If you say this to a business consultant, he or she will most likely tell you that those things are already expected by the customer and then challenge you to find another reason why you are better and a customer should buy from you. This is a good exercise that sometimes can help you identify unique advantages or opportunities. However, some businesses struggle trying to find that sexy or inspiring thing that really makes their company stand out from the crowd. How do you make a customer want to buy from a company that just delivers them building materials?

Maybe you can entice a customer to buy from you because of your customer service, but you better put something special into it and make it extraordinary. Take an industry we all hate for their poor customer service: the airlines. From my road warrior days, I flew almost a million miles on both United and Delta; I also logged many trips on American, Alaska, and many other airlines that have since disappeared.

Nowadays, I will still fly those airlines if I have to, but when I have a choice, I fly Southwest. I choose SWA because it is consistent with its product and dependable (which I can’t say about its competitors), but most of all, I fly Southwest because its employees are extraordinary. It is the only airline that gives its employees the latitude to have fun on the job by singing the safety briefing or getting on the PA and saying “Whoa, I say whoa, boy,” as the plane is landing and braking to a stop. It is the only airline that has ever had a flight attendant drop off a drink at my seat without my asking for one.

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When I asked her why she did such a nice thing, she replied, “You looked like you were having the kind of day where you could use one.” Upon talking with her more, I found out that her whole crew had arrived late at the last turn and missed their opportunity to get a meal. Discovering this allowed me to repay her kind gesture by going into the overhead compartment, breaking out the fresh case of White Castle burgers I was bringing home to surprise my family, and feeding the whole crew. What customer does that for a vendor? One who finds the employees of that vendor to be extraordinary.

If you are selling a product that is a generic commodity, or something that is easily duplicated, how do you make your product stand out as high quality? Have you ever bought an Apple product and noticed its packaging? Apple even delivers the Apple credit card in the same white elegant box, even though it is just a credit card. The well-branded packaging creates the perception of something that is unique and better than the competition.

How did McDonald’s become so big, when people often rate its food as only OK when it comes to taste? Many people will tell you that, while traveling, they often make their meal stops at McDonald’s because they know that McDonald’s will always have a clean bathroom to use. They also know that the food quality will be consistent, no matter which McDonald’s they visit. It’s hard to win over new customers by being consistently good, but it sure helps you keep customers.

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What would your service offering look like if you examined it with this attention to detail and made continuous incremental improvements? What kind of things have people done for you, sent to you, or given you that stand out in your memory? Do you walk around your operation, looking at it through your customers’ eyes or as if you have never been there before? Consistency, attention to details, and thoughtfulness will not only make you stand out in your customers’ minds, but they will tell other people about you, which is the best kind of marketing. When I first introduced myself to my managers, I told them I could judge their operation based on four areas: the back forty (where they hide mistakes), behind the service counter, the manager’s office, and the bathroom. To this day, when I am out visiting stores, word gets out in advance, but somehow is simplified to, “Russ is coming, you better get your bathrooms cleaned!” I guess that is my cross to bear, but as long as it works….

Russ Kathrein is the president and CEO of Aurora, Ill.-based Alexander Lumber, which operates 12 locations throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. He is also chair-elect of the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association. Reach Russ at

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