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There’s no place like home — for good life, good customer service

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It has been months since I had a column in this paper. Much of that time has been spend in military deployments. I know that is an excuse that is wearing thin, but I am looking at retirement from the National Guard and I promise to do better from now on.

In the past, when I wrote my first column after a deployment, I usually tried to summarize the changes I saw since I left. I’ll do a bit of that, but I really want to tell you what it is like to be back in Northern New York and how I know that I am home.

Being gone for months at a time, in places that are very different from our region, gives me a greater appreciation for the north country and its businesses and people. If you don’t get a chance to get away from the area now and then, you may not realize how good it can be.

In October, driving to SUNY Potsdam on a sunny Tuesday morning, I had a sudden reminder of how good this place can be. As I passed through the town of Governour, I noticed smoke coming out from under the hood of my car. That is never a good sign, so I pulled off the road right away.

I could not think of a soul I knew in Governour, but my wife knows everyone, everywhere, and can remember all their phone numbers, so I called her. She called a former colleague from the Jefferson Rehabilitation Center who lives in Governour. The colleague gave me a phone number of a mechanic; he could not help me, but he gave me the number of one who could. Ten minutes later, my smoking car was in Mr. Mandigo’s lot and he was promising to get it fixed as quickly as he could. By tomorrow, he promised.

But how to get to Potsdam, where my students would be waiting expectantly for me to teach them something about management and international business? Mr. Mandigo gave me some names and numbers of businesses in town that might have a car to rent me for local use. Within half an hour, I was renting a car from Spillman’s Auto Dealership and made it to Potsdam in time for my afternoon class.

The next day, my car was ready at a significantly lower cost than I had expected (or would have been charged in many places) and all was well that ended well, with apologies to William Shakespeare.

So what was the lesson in all of this? If you are going to experience a disaster and need rapid and committed customer service from multiple businesses to get out of trouble, try to have the disaster in a place like Gouverneur.

The thing that most impressed me was not that they could fix my car or rent me another, but that everyone I spoke to that day immediately and sincerely wanted to help me. Where one business could not help, they were ready to point me to someone else who might. With that first phone call, I was able to mobilize a network of related businesses and professionals who were able to resolve the problem end to end. And they were friendly about it.

Superior customer service has been hailed as the “killer app” of the 21st century, and businesses all over the planet have spent billions of dollars trying to train employees and improve processes to provide that service. Advertisements trumpet great customer services at businesses of all sizes, in every industry, and optimistic entrepreneurs target superior customer service as the competitive advantage that will make their new business successful.

Perhaps the managers of some of those businesses should get their cars fixed in Gouverneur.

I doubt that any of the businesspeople who helped me had ever hired a consultant to design an improved service model or had read the latest articles and books on the subject in the academic press. Instead, I think they just treated me the way they would want to be treated if they were broken down in a small town where they were strangers.

You can’t teach that kind of approach in a college program. It comes better from an upbringing in a rural region where people have had to depend on one another to survive harsh winters and challenging economic times.

I knew I was back in the north country when I got my car fixed in Gouverneur, and I remembered the strengths of living in and doing business in a place like ours. The world is an increasingly complex place, but we manage to hang on to some simplicity and common sense that carries us through recessions, banking crises, government shutdowns and lake-effect snowstorms.

Certainly we are capable of some pretty dismal customer service in the north country. I have described plenty of examples in this column, and we all have stories of our own that end badly. None of that, however, is reason to lose hope. When we do it right, we do it REALLY right.

If you grew up in the north country and find yourself interviewing for a job at a business in a major city, I suggest you avoid trying to sell your sophistication and the courses you have taken and the books you have read on customer service. Instead, just explain that you grew up in a place where people have learned to help one another as part of life, and that you know how to bring that simple but amazingly powerful approach to their business.

If you are a business manager trying to improve your business’s service offerings, consider searching for employees from small towns and rural communities where the culture demands that people be helpful — and where a reputation for being unhelpful can last for generations.

If you have some stories of great service from a business in the north country, please send them to me in an email. I have spent lots of time talking about bad service and would like to spend some time celebrating good service instead.

I have spent the last few months in places where I was not always liked and not always treated well or trusted — and where I was occasionally attacked. As a stranger, I had to learn caution and the need to withhold my own trust at times. It is good to be home.

Greg Gardner is an associate professor of business at SUNY Potsdam. Email him at ggardner@wdt.net.

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