Jarrah longstrip, a species of wood found in Southwest Australia, is one of the offerings from Harris Tarkett's new Passport:Australia line of prefinished solid hardwood flooring.

The prosperity of the hardwood flooring industry, as with any floor covering entity, revolves around sales. But ultimately, the continuation of that prosperity is determined by service. The commitment necessary to be a viable participant in our industry encompasses several obligations.

It matters not whether you're a manufacturer, distributor or a dealer/contractor, service is vital to your financial well-being. I'd be remiss if neglected to mention that this value chain I just described also contains one additional link: the consumer. It may be last in the chain, but the consumer link ultimately is the strongest - ironically, because it is the one most likely to break away from the other three.

To prosper, your company must demonstrate a wide assortment of attributes. Key among these is a knowledgeable sales force, qualified installers/finishers and - most importantly - a customer service department that is technically qualified and dedicated to prompt, courteous service. In fact, your customer service personnel can represent your last line of defense in keeping the consumer link from breaking the chain.

Unfortunately, I've found over the years that too many people with their "fingers in the pie" at any level within the value chain can hinder and drastically slow the complaint response.

Personally, I gauge the quality of customer service by how often a manager is called upon for intervention. As we all know, some customers insist upon speaking directly to a higher authority. Nevertheless, the successful customer service manager delegates authority to the front-line department personnel who are familiar with the customer and the complaint.

There will always be customers who are virtually impossible to please but, thankfully, they represent a small minority. So, be reluctant to pre-classify any customer under this category before you've exhausted all your resources. Do otherwise, and you're likely to reclassify the customer from the "future client" category to one labeled "never-to-return dissatisfied consumer."

Responding to the complaint is critical at any level of your organization or the value chain. Avoidance will only aggravate the problem and possibly create additional complications that would have been simple to fix if handled with prompt and proper attention.

Confidence and trust were major factors in the customer's decision to go through with the sale. Don't undermine the customer's faith in you with a mediocre complaint response time and effort.

Position yourself as attentive and receptive during the initial phone call the customer makes to air her concerns. Avoid confrontation at all cost. Your response should be to entertain her concerns while remaining noncommittal until a formal inspection can be scheduled - ideally, as soon as possible. If you follow this strategy, the customer under most circumstances will feel comfortable that you are addressing her concerns and that the "service after-the-sale" portion of the contract has been acknowledged.

Identifying the problem with the installation and responding to the customer via the telephone is a rare occurrence, unless the customer is unwittingly seeking technical support regarding a normal condition or characteristic associated with the installation and/or sanding and finishing processes. When you approach these situations, remember that your customer is a walking, talking advertisement for your company. Your company's future may be determined by whether such advertising is positive or negative.

Let's review just a few key components for assertive customer service at each link in the hardwood flooring value chain.

Manufacturer. First of all, manufacturers must recognize that their own ongoing customers are the members of their distributor networks. Complaints are inevitable when you consider how many millions of hardwood flooring products are produced. Second, no one enjoys or profits from complaints, even when they ultimately prove to be unfounded.

Manufacturers can expedite claims processing by granting decision-making latitude, subject to some clearly defined guidelines, to the distributors within their network. This doesn't imply a carte blanche approach.

And finally, if a manufacturer's field representative is required to take action on the problem, months of waiting for that inspection will only exacerbate the problem for the distributor, dealer and the customer.

Distributor. Commonly referred to as the "middle man," the distributor can also be an excellent mediator between the manufacturer and the dealer/contractor. Distributors need to understand that their dealers/contractors view them as their local supplier. They depend upon you to tell "their story" to the manufacturer and, in the event that the response is delayed beyond a reasonable amount of time, they also anticipate some form of assistance for resolving the problem with the consumer.

Traditionally, distributors represent a "multi-line" of flooring products and related sundries. Dealers that are disenchanted with one of your products may begin searching for another source for their other flooring needs as well. No one likes to be a captive audience.

Exonerating yourself from potential problems, rather than educating with the required technical support, will only lead to another self-inflicted complaint - this time originating from the dealer/contractor.

The Dealer/Contractor represents the front-line soldier in our industry. Often, he's an unsung hero - particularly when he resolves complaints without assistance from the manufacturer and distributor. Without question, this needs to be duly noted.

Realistically, the dealer/contractor has to realize that each and every time he moves to resolve a complaint, the lack of compensation he gets for doing so must be factored into the expense of doing business. Remember, to share in the profits requires one to sometimes share in the losses.

The dealer/contractor should resolve any small issues whenever possible. The dealer/contractor also represents the last set of eyes to inspect the hardwood flooring products prior to installation. So, he bears some responsibility for installing any component that is defective.

Wood or Wood Knot invites you to receive our S.O.S message - Sell Our Service - and, by doing so, the wood will continue to sell itself.