Despite doing $46 million in annual sales among its 11 branch locations, the owners of Century Tile & Flooring felt the company's future was in jeopardy if it did not take steps to improve customer satisfaction.

If your showroom was always filled with customers, and your employees always busy, would you think it important to measure your customers' satisfaction? If your store had served your community for more than 50 years and owned a strong market share, would you find it important to discover how customers perceived your store and gauge how satisfying their experiences were? If your revenues were growing, would you invest the effort and money to measure your customers' experiences?

Though Century Tile & Carpet has a strong market share in its community, is busy and enjoys many loyal customers, its owners wanted to find out how satisfied their customers were. To their chagrin, they learned that many customers were not having a memorable experience. Compared to their locally owned competitors, Century Tile was rated significantly lower, on a level similar to the Big Boxes.

Century Tile & Carpet has been a family-owned and operated business for 57 years. Founded by Paul Spiewak and Frank Parks, the company's first location was 3001 N. Austin Ave. in Chicago. Today, the business has 11 locations in the greater Chicago area, with 250 employees doing $46 million in sales. They offer a wide selection of all types of flooring but specialize in tile. Century Tile is committed to giving the best customer service possible.

In the early 1980s, with the help of Armstrong, Century Tile twice over the period of six or seven years hired a research firm to conduct a "blind taste test" in which customers were brought into a meeting room and quizzed about the buying process for floor covering, and whom they shopped in the area and why. From behind a one-way mirror, they were able to observe the conversations as well as videotape participants' responses.

"Many improvements came from this," said Mark Carlson, vice president of Merchandising, "such as [revamped] hours of operation and an express pull service."

But being committed to achieve 100 percent customer satisfaction, they went a step further and started "secret shopping" their stores in 1999. They hired an outside company to monthly shop their stores and their competitors' to measure shopping experiences from the customer's point of view.

Century Tile has many experienced, loyal, long-term employees. They say that Century Tile is a great place to work and make a living. Because of the company's commitment to the customer, salespeople have won many loyal customers over the years. The problem - or should I say the opportunity - is that their people are so busy selling, that they spend most customer time either on the phone or behind the counter. The flow of customers made that kind of service a necessity.

"Behind the counter" became the place to do business, so it was easy to become just an order taker. Unfortunately, this mode of doing business yielded low scores from secret shoppers. Salespeople greeted few customers with excitement. They acknowledged even fewer within a minute of their arrival at the store.

Although they offer a wide selection of all types of flooring, Century Tile's particular specialty, as the business name implies, is ceramic tile.
The owners didn't ignore the scores. Concerned that their service levels fell below competitors' levels, Century Tile president Fred Schmidt called on me to help facilitate improvement in their secret shopper scores.

We knew that a single seminar on customer service would not suffice. Training is a process, not an event. Therefore, we scheduled several training sessions for the entire Century Tile staff, including the warehouse and back-office people.

Initially, we involved everyone in the challenge of writing customer-service standards. The standards would become part of Century Tile's culture, and be taught to everyone (especially new employees), so that the customer could be acknowledged and served consistently all the time. When employees make the changes, they become the champions for the cause.

I wish I could report that, as a result of a couple of incredible seminars, Century Tile's customer service scores immediately improved. But they didn't. Why? The owners and employees had undertaken to change the company's culture. But culture changes take time, attention, patience, and everyone's buy in. I was disappointed that my seminars hadn't improved the measured results.

But the company's executives persisted. The store managers frequently reinforced the standards in company meetings. The company newsletter dwelt on why the standards were important, and why the company's future was at stake.

Eventually (after several years), the scores started to rise. Success at last! I asked Tom Parks, vice president of Sales, what had been the biggest challenge in realizing this turnaround.

"Changing habits," he said. "Changing the culture, to acknowledge customers by coming out from behind the counter to greet them within a minute. Even though the employees developed the standards, they needed regular reminders about the value of immediately greeting the customer. It took consistent attention, even though everything we'd done aimed to build employee buy in."

Tom reports that most long-term employees have indeed bought into the concept and now keep to the standards. Thanks to thorough orientation, all new hires are on board as well. Looking back, they found it relatively easy to bring all to agree with the concept. The harder feat was bringing everyone to focus on it and embrace it actively, day in and day out.

I asked Fred what he wanted to achieve as the company continued this process. "We want to promise our customers a consistent, positive shopping experience in all 11 locations," he replied. He finds that the resulting positive shopping reports, letters and phone calls that cite excellence in customer service and customer loyalty have justified their focus.

Fred recommends that all retailers engage an independent shopping service to document how their service levels compare to competitors'. Then, invite their employees to develop written customer-service standards that everyone can support. If he had it to do over, Fred said he'd retrain sooner and reward positive shopping experiences immediately.

Reflecting on his experiences in Century Tile's effort to improve customer service, Fred made several observations that retailers who contemplate initiating a similar effort ought to bear in mind. First, you need the management team's buy in, he said. To facilitate this, Fred bases part of his managers' bonuses on the results from secret shoppers. Second, he added, don't expect a quick process. It takes time, energy and frequent reiteration. Third, expect some people to initially challenge the process and question the secret shopper's report. Teach them that the report reflects the shopper's perception, not theirs. Fourth, he advised, don't overreact to a single shopping report, whether excellent or poor. It's a single snapshot. The key is to work for continual, aggregate improvement towards the goal of a consistently high level of customer service.

Without question, measuring the customer's shopping experience in a retail store is a "best practice." Nevertheless, I find that less than one in 100 flooring dealers do it. If you're too busy to do it, you probably don't need to bother. Odds are you won't be around for long anyway.