When a customer complains, what do you do?

We’ve all seen those customers from hell. You know, the ones who are so difficult to satisfy, you almost want to hand over the keys so they can see what it’s like to deal with themselves.

At Northport Flooring America, in the few instances when they have seen such clients they embrace them. Co-owners Harold Musci and Derek Fay actually go out of their way to listen to and work with those customers to find a resolution. While it is not always a quick process, it has turned those people into some of the most loyal advocates they have, sending rave reviews after the fact and referring new business their way.

“We are very consumer-driven,” explains Fay. “We tell it all and we tell it first. If we make a mistake, we own it and keep our integrity. That is one of our best practices. We’re not perfect and if we fall short, it’s not the customer that’s going to be paying the price for it. We fess up, say we made a mistake, fix it and go forward.”

“It says everything about who we are and is probably one of our best features,” reinforces Musci. Relating a specific instance, even after reaching a resolution one customer took 18 months to come in and actually pick out her new floor, all the while living on the floor Musci and Fay originally provided on their dime. As the new floor they had agreed upon was being installed, she wanted to change the flooring yet again.

“She understood and even joked she was probably the most difficult customer we would ever see,” Musci says. “But in the end, she just cannot say enough positive things about us,” and has become one of the company’s greatest advocates, sending new business their way.

Another customer actually took them to small claims court, and during the course of the hearing, the judge asked if she would ever shop their store again. Thanks to the level of service, she responded, she would never go anywhere else.

“It is about making every effort to legitimately try to deal with your customers’ problems,” Musci says. “It may take you a while, but generally it all works out pretty well.”

That legitimacy comes in many forms. From the very first point of contact, Fay points out their team works to educate the consumer and earn her trust. “It’s all about showing our customer the value for her spend,” he says. “On the soft side of the business, things like one-price installs with no extras instead of pricing everything out individually [removes confusion] and shows value to build trust.”

In a time when many of the traditional forms of getting the word out to new customers have shifted dramatically, the partners have been careful in their approach.

Rather than advertise regularly through newspaper and radio in the closest major urban hub—nearby Cleveland—they have evaluated their options to focus their advertising spend locally and through their partnership with the Flooring America brand.

“While we are always sending up trial balloons to see what is successful,” Musci says, “we are definitely more frugal and diligent about what we do with those dollars.

“Our philosophy has been we can put a message out there with those radio stations which actually have a pretty strong demographic,” he explains. “But we asked ourselves if people are really going to travel 35 to 40 minutes to buy carpet. We will get lots of ears through them, but those are not our customers.”

What has worked instead: with the store located near a major crossroads for communities in the area, they invested in an electronic billboard.

“Rather than investing in radio and newspaper that have no shelf life,” he says, “we get our message out 24/7 as people travel by our store.”

To ensure all promises are kept with customers, the pair note it is important to educate everybody in the company and have key communications systems in place.

“We educate all our people from the top down on new trends,” Musci notes. “We stay current on practices and encourage communication from everyone on our team from installers through to Derek and myself. That way, if somebody is not here when their customer comes in, we have a system in place to ensure everyone will know where they are at with her and service her without missing a beat.”

The philosophy has worked well for the pair who bought the 60-plus year old company in 1991 from its founder. Musci began his flooring career with Northport in 1974 while Fay similarly began his tenure in flooring with the retailer in 1981.

Together they have weathered the industry’s ups and downs, most recently seeing the last recession take a 50% hit on their business. By taking a frugal approach and focusing on a diversified client pool—servicing commercial, builder, insurance and property management—they were able to maintain without having to let anyone go. They did, however, shrink their workforce through attrition while everyone took pay cuts and wore more hats.

Today, they have restored most of the business lost in the recession and are within reach of seeing pre-recession sales levels within the near future. But the lessons learned are expected to stay with them.

“We have looked more on the expense side and do our best to not get into old habits of spending money where we don’t need to,” says Musci.

They have also looked more closely at the non-residential clients with whom they work.

“We have long relationships with very high quality and strong builders in our community,” Fay notes. “One of the things we learned thanks to the recession was to be selective and watch to see if there are any danger signs or patterns in how, or how quickly, we are getting paid.”

Another secret to their success: “While we have an idea of what everybody else is doing,” Musci says, “we don’t focus on it. We are focused on what we are doing and educate our customers on why we should be their choice.”

It is a strategy that has more than worked, with referrals more than driving the retail side to over $4 million in annual sales.