Karie Bennett, SALON TODAY contributing editor and owner of Atelier Salonspa and Atelier Studio in San Jose, California, finds the silver lining in tough economic times: extreme customer service.

As any small business owner will agree, the changes that our economy has been through in the past few years have been challenging at best.  Tightening our entrepreneurial belts has been an unfortunate fact of business life in order to weather the downturn.  Some say things are turning around and we're on our way back up.  Did we learn anything from the experience?  Was there a silver lining?

As a consumer, I can remember the day I noticed that big business had caught a whiff of my dissatisfaction.  A year ago I needed to paint a couple of walls in my home.  I had a color in mind, and went to my local home improvement store for paint samples.  I waited for almost 30 minutes before the sole "paint technician" turned his attention on me to mix my can of paint.  The line of customers at that paint counter was long, and studded with impatience, anger, and lots of sighs.  People were walking out of the store, tired of waiting.  It was obvious that stores with lagging sales were starting to cut back on staff; resulting in a drop in the level of customer service, resulting in unhappy customers who stopped shopping, which resulted in lagging sales...you get the drift.

Two weeks later, that Labor Day weekend, I went back to that same home improvement store to buy the paint.  I dreaded the chore, but needed that color, that brand.  I prepared myself for another frustrating, time-wasting experience.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It seemed as if the company had held an employee rally, and reminded the staff that they were in the customer service business.  Not only were there additional "paint mixer-uppers," there were home improvement "guides" to help me find what I needed and suggest items I didn't know I needed but wound up purchasing.  Instead of my having to track down an associate to help me choose the right paintbrush, a staffer found me, and offered suggestions.  I went from seeking out someone specializing in one department to being a special person to the department.  Not only did I purchase the paint I came for, but I also bought extra rollers, brushes, and masking tape.  Was I resentful that I had spent more than I had planned?  Actually, no, I felt that I had been assisted to do a better job in my do-it-yourself painting project, and that the store cared about me.  That was a level of customer service that I hadn't expected from a big, publicly held chain store.  But I got it and I haven't forgotten it, a year later.

Their silver lining was more attentive service.  The store had realized that without a major step-up in the way they treated their customers, they wouldn't be able to weather the recession, much less thrive in it, and that having better staffing levels to help the customer identify their needs would help sales grow.

I have since noticed this trend stretching from the large businesses on down to the small ones.  In my own salons, Atelier Salonspa and Atelier Studio, we have 5-star initiatives in place for our customers at every point of contact, and we keep coaching our employees on it.  We don't wait to hear of a problem that needs to be solved, we ask our customers how we're doing whenever we can, to ensure that every one of them knows that they are special and important to us.  These initiatives start with making our employees feel special and important through a benefits package that focuses on their health, their continuing education, and their future.  We also celebrate customer feedback by sharing it with our team.  Of course we love all the compliments, since they tell us we're on the right track, but we also thank our customers for telling us where our opportunities for improvement are.  And we make those improvements happen.

I also had a more recent experience that pleasantly surprised me.  I was in my nearby national chain grocery store, where they have all of the basic necessities, and a club card that offers incentives, like 'Buy one, get one free', and discounts on items.  When I enter my club card number at checkout, I get those offers automatically.  At this visit, after checkout, the manager came up to me and gave me his card, which had his cell phone number on it.  He said that he knew I was a valuable customer in the store and wanted to offer me personal concierge services, such as a wine steward, 24-hr party trays, rebates on gasoline, deli specials, etc.  He gave me an "Elite" status brochure outlining these services, and invited me to call him directly if I ever needed any help.  Needless to say, I was amazed.  To find that a store where the most personal attention I had gotten in the past was a hello from employees would take customer service to this level was further proof that a wake-up call had officially been issued.  The message seems to be, when you find your top customers, treat them like the high-rollers that they are.  It seems like the old attitude, "the customer is lucky I'm waiting on them" has been replaced by "we're lucky to have you shopping with us."  (I'm almost expecting the return of the full-service gas station any day now.)

Will I use the concierge service?  I'm not sure any of the 'special services' will be useful to me, but just the fact that they were aware of my value as a customer and had created an extra level of importance and service feels a little bit special.

So, I would say yes, there was a silver lining to the economic downturn--to those businesses who kept their eyes and ears open and used the situation to get better at the service they provided, to do whatever it took to keep people employed, product on the shelf, and a storefront open for the community. 

It looks like sunny days might be ahead of us.