Athletic champions know they must continually improve. They'll regress if they don't progress. So, many hire personal coaches to tell them about weak spots they can't see. Using a coach's feed-back, they can improve their performance. That's why we call feedback the "breakfast of champions." Still, some athletes are afraid of feedback. They act like an ostrich, burying their head in the sand, blissfully clueless about the flaws that stymie their progress. As a result, they invariably achieve less than they could.

So, which type of storeowner are you? Do you seek and encourage feedback? Or, do you posture like an ostrich? I know you don't want to imitate an ostrich, because you'll look silly. But if you're not quite persuaded you should hire a coach, consider the story of a Florida retailer who dazzled both customers and competitors by seeking and using feedback. His results may inspire you to hire a coach to help work on customer services.

More on him later but first let's look at the process of generating feedback. Of course it takes some courage for a storeowner to seek feedback on customer service. When I was running our family flooring store, I'd rather not hear that an installer or salesperson had upset a customer. I hated dealing with dissatisfied customers. They distressed me.

Have you felt that way? In our subconscious, we wish complaints would just go away, but consciously, we know that wish is vain. Problems don't go away, but upset customers certainly do. We can't afford that. To reach our potential, we need the stomach to eat the "breakfast of champions." Who do I recommend to be your personal coach? Try this idea: enlist the services of each of your customers. They'll be pleased to give you candid feedback, and they charge no coaching fees.

In my seminars, we've identified "best business practices." A common best practice is seeking and listening to customers' feedback. Here's how:

• After every installation, write or call the customer to draw out their feelings about the whole purchase experience.

• Circulate their assessment, good or bad, to everyone within the company.

• Remind employees that their performance impacts the company's financial health.

• Tie incentive-pay to customer satisfaction.

• Formally recognize and reward outstanding

customer service.

• Track customer satisfaction with internal operating statistics.

• Call customers who don't buy, and ask why.

I know of one Florida retailer who has done this and saw dramatic results. Lou Morano, with his associate Steve Cosentino, opened their store in 1985. Boynton Beach, Fl. Now they have five stores, all serving Palm Beach County. They attribute much of their growth to their commitment to customer satisfaction.

It took shape when they decided to call every customer after an installation or a purchase, and ask five questions designed to draw out genuine feedback:

• How do you feel about your experience buying from us? How did we treat you - our receptionist, your salesperson, the manager, anyone else?

• Did our employees keep in touch with you after your first visit ... and until we'd finished the job? (Ask for the names of employees who didn't serve as expected.)

• How would you describe your experience with the installation?

• Any comments about anything else about your experience?

• What do you feel makes our store the best place to buy flooring? Would you recommend Capitol Carpet and Tile to your friends?

Lou, wisely I think, asks his mother to make the calls and she writes the responses on feedback forms, which are then distributed for maximum impact.

A copy is sent to the service manager for every customer who needs something corrected. Every customer-service employee (salesperson and installer), in their pay-envelope, receives a copy of his or her customers' feedback. Lou receives only the surveys that stand out as being particularly good or bad. He loves to see comments like "very professional," "very helpful," "great job," and "loved their work." In a "bad" case, he discusses the case with the installer or salesperson. Together, they find a way to make this customer happy, and look for better ways to ensure they avoid repeating mistakes.

The feedback forms tell Lou how his customers perceive Capitol Carpet and Tile, and how well his people are performing every week. He also rewards salespeople and installers who consistently generate positive feedback. For every "really good" feedback, the employee gets a plus-mark (but two minus-marks for every "bad" feedback.). Every two months, the name and total points earned by each employee is ranked on the bulletin board in order of points earned. The winner in each category receives a gift certificate.

Lou says the results have been amazing. Customers are pleased and every complaint has been resolved. When the experience was unsatisfactory, Lou calls the customer. He identifies himself as the owner, apologizes for having inconvenienced the customer, inquires whether she or he is now satisfied, and asks if there is anything else he can do. Amazingly, many customers respond, "I vowed that I'd never come back to your store. But now, I will come back!" Imagine Lou's delight.

What's equally important, his employees have improved their service without him badgering them. They chose to improve after he posted the feedback rankings, and started to recognize great performances. This proves, again, that an organization can change results by simply changing what it measures.

Even the installers polished their customer skills. Lou has some seasoned installers, outstanding craftsmen, who are proud of their technical skills, but weren't much concerned about people skills. During installation, they weren't actually rude, but some customers thought they were. Through this feedback process, the installers learned that customers cared more about how they treated them than the fine points of installation. They developed people skills, to avoid being listed at the bottom.

After describing these amazing results, Lou emphasized to me the greatest benefit of feedback: it prevents customer complaints. By the third month, Lou said this benefit had become obvious. He now sees few negative comments. He counts prevention the greatest benefit because he knows that, long-term, consistent superior service will shine his stores' reputation as no other effort.

Again, we see that the simple process of measuring performance and publishing it can reduce problems nearly to zero. As the sayng goes: "When performance is measured, performance improves."

Lou's motto is a question; "Why would you buy from anyone else?" And my question is, "Are you eating the breakfast of champions?" Are you eating your Wheaties?