New Old Timey Customer Service


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Whatever happened to Lee Roy Clark? Mr. Clark was the grocer in my South
Georgia home town. He was my introduction to what it meant to be a “merchant”—courteous and eager to help all who came into his small all-purpose store.

The business world is today rediscovering the value of service that permeated Lee Roy Clark’s bones. This “rediscovery” is made to sound like a breakthrough–something absent from the past, newly found and terribly important. The Lee Roy Clarks of yesteryear get no credit for using methods now attributed to Disney, USAA,, Zappo’, Nordstorm, and Ritz-Carlton Hotels.

What happened between the early 1950s version of small-town service and its present-day renaissance? How did the business world move so far away from Lee Roy Clark and why is his brand of customer service now so eagerly sought? Can it be that Lee Roy could teach us lessons about ’50s service relevant for today?

Before you chide that superior service involves much more than neighborly manners, let me add that Lee Roy Clark knew a lot about a service vision, customer-friendly delivery systems, and service recovery. To be sure, Lee Roy was no scholar of service management nor graduate of a customer-relations class. He did what he did out of a solid grounding in the premise that serving implied a covenant and devotion to the customer. Service to Lee Roy was about reciprocal power–his power to provide goods and services coupled with the customer’s power to keep him in business.

He was quite clear on his role–to provide groceries and a few small appliances to a small, rural community. Lee Roy was a merchant and that was that. He possessed a responsibility to those who crossed the threshold of his grocery store. Lee Roy acted out of a simple belief: “My customers are my neighbors.” To cheat, disappoint or dissatisfy a customer would be as inappropriate as starting a heated argument at a family reunion. He believed his customers were honest–and they always seemed to be. He also assumed differences with customers would be resolved with a sense of fair play–and they always seemed to be.

Lee Roy knew what his customers needed and expected. One day my father, a full-time banker AND full-time farmer, stopped in to buy a loaf of bread. “Mr. Bell,” said Lee Roy in his always polite voice, “I ordered you some of those fly strips for your pig house. Last time you were in here, you complained that the flies were about to take away your new furrowing house.” I wonder how many service organizations would stock an item based solely on data gathered through “fair weather” conversation. Lee Roy cared a lot more about service than inventory. And, when my father opted to NOT buy the yellow fly strips, Lee Roy acted neither hurt nor disappointed. He knew his role and responsibility–and he fulfilled both.

Lee Roy rearranged his grocery store every year or so. “Customers are forever telling me better ways to set up the store,” he said one summer day when I was in town to buy a lawn-mower blade and stopped by the New City Market to buy a RC cola. “I’m not always crazy about their ideas,” he admitted, “But if I didn’t make a few changes they’d think I didn’t have any respect for ’em.” And if there was a new fad, Lee Roy would have it in stock in a hurry. He had hula hoops and fireball jawbreakers before the big stores in Macon!

Lee Roy was also effective at recovering from a customer service breakdown. There was no need for a written “service guarantee”—Lee Roy WAS the guarantee. He would not even consider offering a discount if something the customer purchased was not up to their expectations. Instead of some version of “$3.00 off if…is late,” “You don’t owe me a thing” was his response. We need more Lee Roys instead of merchants who too frequently argue over a 99 cent carton of milk with a customer who, if loyal to that same store, could spend $40,000 over the average ten years they live in a given location.

Lee Roy knew if his customers had a problem, his initial focus had to be on fixing the relationship with that customer–then, the customer’s problem. My grandmother bought an ice cream churn from Lee Roy–the kind grandsons endlessly hand crank to turn thick cream into a summer eve’s delight. It was a July day when she unpacked it only to discover the crank was missing. “Lee Roy,” she complained, “you sold me a bum steer!” Lee Roy drove three miles out in the country with another churn. With him, he brought a fresh-baked apple pie and two gallons of “store bought” ice cream. Now, here is the best part: He sat out in the shade for a half hour with my grandmother quizzing her on her secrets for getting azaleas to grow big and healthy!

I suppose I’m on thin ice implying that it’s possible to simplify a very challenging issue. A few of the complex barriers to replicating Lee Roy’s brand of customer service include corporate bigness, bureaucracy, legal restrictions, diverse customer requirements, increased competition domestically and globally, and a scarcity of committed and competent employees. And, if it was as easy now as it was then, service books would not become best sellers nor would companies hire consultants to help them figure out ways to insure customers’ loyalty.

Yet sometimes I wonder if the question of customer loyalty really is simpler than we realize. Perhaps we just need to rekindle the passion to give customers the kind of devotion that guided Lee Roy Clark. It’s possible I am just a romantic, opting for nostalgia instead of accepting the cold reality of the present. But, then again…maybe not.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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