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Time was when service to the customer was the mantra of successful businesses everywhere. The idea has been popularized by such best-sellers as In Search of Excellence, and Good to Great, which foster the notion that fixating on the needs of customers is a key to business success.

How things have changed. Type "bad customer service" into Google and you get links to about 400,000 pages. And those pages are chock-full of customers who get waited on by lackadaisical fast-food servers, wander through superstores without laying eyes on a store employee, and look in vain for paper towels in public rest rooms. All this might lead some to the conclusion that customer service got derailed somewhere, at least when it comes to consumer goods.

Unfortunately, so-so customer service isn't limited to stores and restaurants. Evidence is mounting that even business-tobusiness services could use a refresher course in how to treat customers.

But some businesses still "get it" when the topic comes to earning customer loyalty through exemplary service. MACHINE DESIGN decided to find the best of them. To do so, we asked readers to tell us about businesses that had gone the extra mile when it counted.

BUILDING GOOD WILL
Were MACHINE DESIGN readers happy to tell us about businesses that had helped them? You bet. Some, like this reader, are grateful for a vendor's attention and expert help. "Just when we thought out-standing customer service was a thing of the past, Susan Kelly and Amherst Technologies reminded us there are still companies that understand the value of going the extra mile for the customer," he writes. The reader had called the Merrimack, N.H., company in desperation after IT equipment his company bought didn't work, and the original manufacturer washed its hands of the whole matter. Ironically, the MD reader wasn't even an Amherst customer when he called. "Sue went to extreme lengths to help us get what we needed and save our $300,000 project," our reader relates.

Sometimes, simple business etiquette like returning phone calls is so noteworthy it earns customers' respect. That was the case with a grinding-machine manufacturer and its experience with Brush Controls, a manufacturer's rep for motioncontrol and automation equipment in Grosse Pointe, Mich. "Detroit is an auto-making town and we get many vendors trying to fit us into the carmaking mold. They don't understand us and often don't even understand their own products. Jud Utely at Brush Controls, however, knows we don't make cars and only shows us relevant products. He's also knowledgeable, professional, and quick to return calls."

Many people blame the lack of customer service on cost pressures from offshore competitors. But cost pressures can make customer service even more important, according to one MD reader. He tells of his experience with Georgia Automation Inc., a distributor based in Conyers, Ga. "They've been much more than a supplier," says the reader, an engineer who designs textile machinery. "They come in at the beginning of a project and already seem to understand what we're trying to accomplish. They help design the circuit and closely monitor the project. Their application engineers are a hands-on resource. And the owner has personally worked past midnight to complete rush orders for us then delivered them to us personally the next day."

Suppliers also build good will by showing a little trust. One reader was involved in a project that needed some lasermeasurement equipment. "We knew of a Keyence laser sensor that we thought could do the job and immediately called their rep, Gibb Gilmore. Within a few minutes they agreed to send us a laser for testing," says the engineer. "Next morning, it arrived with all the power supplies and cables. It was at least several thousand dollars worth of equipment, all loaned free of charge. I can't imagine better service."

DELIVERANCE
One theme pervades readers' stories: Companies that don't deliver on promises make bad impression on customers. A classic example comes from a reader in Florida: "I had asked a sheet-metal supplier for a complex set of cosmetic stainless weldments. They quickly promised delivery, so quickly it made me uneasy. I asked for a set of parts to use for acceptance prior to giving them the production go-ahead."

"The acceptance samples were good and fit the first time," he continues. "So I gave permission for full production with no changes. It was at that point the vendor admitted they couldn't meet the production deadline. Apparently, they were counting on me to request a change."

But the story has a happy ending. "We eventually asked Florida Sheet Metal in West Melbourne, Fla. to quickly make the parts. As busy as people there were, they managed to turn out perfect parts," our reader relates. "Now I recommend Florida Sheet Metal whenever I get the chance."

But sometimes, deliveries get delayed. How suppliers respond in such situations truly gives customers insight into their attitude toward service. One reader recounts his experience with James Spring & Wire Co. in Frazer, Pa., He needed prototypes — fast. "But the first batch of complex layered-spring prototypes they built were lost as they moved between plants during a hurricane. The company quickly turned out a second set of prototypes, at its cost, and they worked well in the design."

Another recurring comment from satisfied customers regards companies that come through in the clutch, earning themselves customers for life. One reader recalls the time his company had bid its way into a problem. "We had quoted a hydraulic-crawler drilling machine. But by the time the order was finalized, the engine had become obsolete. We were in a dilemma. We had beaten out stiff international competition to get the order and we would have lost all credibility if we didn't deliver. But a new engine would mean time lost on validation, plus we would have to ask for a deviation from the specs."

Once again, a happy ending. "We approached Cummins for help," writes our reader. "They had a spare engine which had been earmarked for another customer. They agreed to convert it to our configuration. It was a great gesture. It involved a lot of items which they didn't have in stock and they had to go out and find."

PERSEVERANCE AND PROBLEM SOLVING
Another way companies win customer loyalty is by sticking with a project no matter what problems crop up. An aerospace engineer recounts how Brycoat, Safety Harbor, Fla., stood behind its claims and helped him develop a method of putting a nitride coating on a spherical aluminum spacecraft shell. "The Brycoat engineers stuck it out through several design iterations, always keeping me updated, until we had a workable solution," he says. "And they didn't charge us until the project was finished."

Engineers also appreciate working with suppliers that have in-house expertise. A reader who works as an engineer in the packing industry recalls how his company made a big push into machine vision to improve quality, an area in which they had little experience. " Fortunately, we hooked up with Randy Carlson at Cognex Corp." he says. "Randy can deal with sales, technical information and support. Unlike some sales people who think they know everything and will even give you false info just to sell a product, Randy admits when a problem's too big for him and calls in someone who can do the job. And he's never to busy to take my calls."