My favorite magazine has an annual essay contest, and this year’s question is, “When did you first understand the meaning of love?” I haven’t arrived at the precise answer to that question yet – too many examples. But if you were to ask me a simpler question, like when I first understood the meaning of customer service, that I could answer: Summa Pharmacy, Tarkio, Missouri.
Customer service is almost a buzzword these days, and the companies who most frequently banter it about are often those who practice it the least. Most small businesses – especially most small TOWN businesses – survive chiefly because of their superior customer service. But nobody calls it that around here. I don’t recall anyone at Summa Pharmacy reading a book or attending a seminar on “Improving Your Customer Service.” And yet, by the ripe old age of 15, by spending my teenage Saturdays and available after school hours at Summa’s, these are the tacit rules I knew to be important:
- Call everyone by name. (Yes, in small towns, this is a relatively simple task. But it’s a big deal.)
- Smile, be nice, say hi, look people in the eye. (So simple, and yet, so uncommon, especially in big box stores.)
- Ask how the customer is doing. (Then listen to the answer.)
- Underpromise and overdeliver. (Might be one of those silly clichéd sayings created by a guy in a suit in 1973, but as far as I’m concerned, Doug created it and it’s brilliant. )
- Treat everyone the same. (Cranky, kind, fancy, unkempt - doesn’t matter.)
- When a mistake is made, fix it. (Customers might not always be right, but if it’s within your power to make things better for them, do it.)
- Order and stock what your people want and need. (Special order what you don’t.)
- Let your neighbors up the block come watch your TV, and play quarters with them when you have time. (This has nothing to do with customer service, just something I remember as being highly entertaining and neighborly.)
Every time a bright-eyed, friendly high school kid helps me out with my groceries or looks me in the eye and makes conversation in the check-out line, I remember everything Summa’s taught me, and I’m so glad to see that those lessons are still being passed on in local businesses today.
In a business sense, Summa’s taught me that in small towns, every single customer matters. If there aren’t alternatives in your town or county, there are certainly alternatives in bigger communities nearby. In Atchison County, your store matters simply because you exist, but it is successful when you treat customers with kindness and respect, offer them what they need, and let high school classes paint your windows during Homecoming.
I was a painfully shy kid; truly, if it wasn’t for Summa’s, I might never have learned to talk to people. And despite the kindness and love I was shown in my home, many of the lessons I learned at Summa’s were the ones that taught me how to treat people in my life as an adult. My genetics and general awesomeness (and humility) are from my folks – but without the influence of Doug Summa and the lovely ladies who worked there, I wouldn’t be who or where I am today.
So thank you, Douglas, first of all, your willingness to hire a shy teenager in the first place. But, more importantly, thank you for training her (and others) to treat the public with kindess, respect, friendliness, humor and professionalism. You taught me more in the first 30 minutes in your store than any silly seminar ever could.