Michael Miner remembers his orientation sessions at Flanagan's. He especially recalls the moment when he was invited into a room to spend some time with the Flanagan brothers. "You sit down with the four of them," he explains, and they talk about Flanagan's family history, its philosophy, and the stress placed right across the board on customer service.
"It's easy to follow the motto of service when it comes from the top like that," says Miner, who is a Flanagan Territory Manager in Niagara, based out of Kitchener. "You have to give a huge credit to the Flanagan brothers."
Selections Magazine was asked to talk about customer service with Flanagan employees from several different departments. It soon became clear that while the job descriptions were very different, the emphasis on serving customers was universal, company-wide.
The Flanagan's team members who were interviewed all agreed on a number of things:
Sarah Jennings has been a sales team co-ordinator with Flanagan's for almost six years. She sums up her job in fairly simple terms: "Take orders, deal with customer issues and problems." And she's even more concise when she describes her approach to that job: "I do everything I can to help them out."
Sarah, like her colleagues who were interviewed, considers everyone she serves to be her customers, and therefore deserving of excellent customer service. That includes Flanagan clients and the territory managers and sales reps she deals with.
She's part of the customer service division, and sees her job as always going the extra mile. "I'll exhaust all the options," she says. Sometimes, that can take a while; she recently had to do the research to determine if each and every product ordered by a Flanagan's customer was free of sesame products. The client was a summer camp with a camper with a severe sesame allergy. Sarah made each and every call necessary to answer the question.
She also recalls a situation in which a client did not receive a case of supplies, and no Flanagan's truck was nearby. She called another client in the same community, who had extra of the same product; she then called a taxi, to have the product picked up and delivered. "We find a way," she says. "That's something that's important to us, not giving up."
She says, "It's all about relationship building. You develop a very good rapport with all your customers. Getting to actually know the customer makes a huge difference—they're not just a voice."
Sarah remembers the "solid week of training" she received when she joined Flanagan's, but she believes that, when it comes to understanding and delivering customer service, nothing matches experience. "The best thing to do is dive right in and get your hands dirty, case by case."
The underlying secret that she espouses sounds suspiciously like the golden rule: "I treat them the way I'd like to be treated."
Stacie Smallacombe is a Senior Buyer with Flanagan's whose main role is purchasing non-food products. She has been with Flanagan's for 13 years, initially working in accounts payable, and then managing that department before moving to her present role.
Asked about customer service, Stacie points out that there are "internal and external customers," and all deserve good service. In her case, she deals regularly with suppliers, sales representatives, and the customer service department that includes Sarah Jennings. For Stacie, they are all customers.
She believes that good customer service depends on understanding and meeting the needs of the customers—internal and external. "You have to listen, you have to know what they want... you have to anticipate their needs." What they want, of course, changes regularly, with more products available and evolving market trends. None the less, says Stacie, "we try and have all the products our customers require." And they make every effort to be current with market trends; for instance, "right now, 'green' is very big."
There is always a focus on offering the best price and the best quality, provided the product does, in fact, meet the specific and individual needs of the customer. Matching that complex mix makes for "different challenges, every day," Stacie says.
One key to successful customer service is "communication with everyone." And part of her job is to "make doing business as easy as possible... going above and beyond."
She adds, "most importantly, always do what you say you're going to do... don't make false promises."
Brad Schoelier's job at Flanagan's has "customer service" built right into his pay package. Brad is an order picker in the warehouse; he moved to that job two years ago after eight years as a driver.
Picking is piece work; Brad and his colleagues are paid according to speed... and accuracy. There is a deduction for mistakes. So Brad's goal is to prepare the orders for shipping without any mistakes, and as efficiently as possible.
Having been a driver, he understands their challenges, as well. "I try and built the load the best I can for the driver, so he's not missing any product, and not left looking for any product."
Brad starts his work day at 5 p.m. as one of the pickers who prepares the "interbranch" shipment that goes to the Sudbury Flanagan's facility. But "at 6 p.m., the race is on," he says, as orders are printed out for all of the Flanagan's delivery trucks, orders that are assembled by the pickers on skids they manoeuvre with their end-riders. The job continues until it is done, sometimes stretching to 2:30 a.m.
The pickers—13 or so in the warehouse, another five in the freezer, as well as re-packers, loaders and lead hands—understand that "Flanagan's likes happy customers," and that clients who don't get exactly what they ordered are often less than happy. Missed or broken items mean "frustration and disappointment," and nobody wants that, least of all the people preparing the shipments. They know "the customer orders the product for a reason." They're there to make sure the product reaches the customer, on time.
"We have one of the lowest error rates in the food service industry," says Brad, with pride. "That's good to hear. It's very rewarding."
At first glance, the terms "customer service" and "credit department" may seem to be somewhat contradictory. Not at all, says Tracey Mensch, Senior Credit Administrator, who has been with Flanagan's for eight years.
First of all, credit means much more than bill collecting, in this department. Sometimes, it means paying the customer, if there are adjustments to initial invoices. But even in the cases where there are outstanding invoices, Tracey and her colleagues look for ways to serve the customer, to find "win-win" solutions to tough financial circumstances.
"We want to keep that relationship open with the customer," she says. "We don't want to stop shipping to anyone."
And she's quick to point out that such discussions are rare. "It doesn't happen a whole lot," she says. "Our credit and collections are pretty good."
That has a lot to do with the effective systems in the Flanagan's credit department, and with the company-wide focus on good customer service. Tracey points out that Flanagan's communicates with new clients, learning as much as possible about those businesses so even the credit department can offer the appropriate services.
They also work closely with new customers to work out a credit arrangement that will be right for Flanagan's and for the customer. "We establish what kind of terms we're going to give them. The more information we have, the better we can do the job."
Often, the direct contact with customers is not from a credit administrator, but through the people they know best—their drivers and territory managers. Often, drivers have a regularly schedule cheque pick-up; other clients like to hand their payment directly to their sales rep. It's all about relationship, and Tracey and colleagues know that. "In a lot of cases," she says, "I deal just with the rep."
In those rare cases when a client is in a financial crunch, Tracey and colleagues don't slam the door. They work out payment terms, they help the client with payment plans, "we trying to negotiate whatever works for them." In other words, Tracey looks for the "win-win", where the customer finds a way to succeed in business, while Flanagan's avoids costly losses.
Michael Miner has been a Flanagan's Territory Manager for almost two years. For Michael, it is literally all about service. In dealing with his approximately 60 clients in the Niagara area, he says, "I have a totally different view of sales. I don't view it as pushing product at all. It's all about relationship and service. The stronger the relationship, the more I can sell."
He adds, "My purpose is to service the customers as well as I possibly can." His objective, he says, is to turn a profit, for himself and for Flanagan's. But he argues that focusing on the purpose is the only way to achieve the objective - and that puts customer service front and centre at all times. Focusing on anything else, he says, "is dangerous."
He talks about "building trust, honesty and respect" with clients, and constantly reminds himself that "it's a privilege that they're dealing with me and with Flanagan's."
Michael agrees that Flanagan's has built "a great reputation for customer service."
He works hard to get to know new customers as quickly as possible, leaning on learned methodologies like watching body language, asking "discovery questions", and discerning character style. That kind of attention paid to customers will "fast track the entire process."
It must be effective: Michael earned the award for bringing the most new customers to Flanagan's in 2009.
Alex Siemens likes being a Flanagan's driver, a job he has held for two and a half years. He told Selections, "I like being out and about, there's something new every day, the scenery is nice, I like being outdoors, and there's something new every day." But his favourite part of the job, he says, is "seeing the people, and being able to communicate with them."
Depending on the day—weekly routine is consistent, but the daily pattern changes—he delivers Flanagan's products to between 10 and 20 customers during his run. He sees some clients as many as three times a week. And he knows as a driver that "we are the face of Flanagan's."
He says that his final thought before greeting each customer is "to put that smile on." That isn't usually a challenge; he now knows most of his customers well, and "you get to develop the friendships, good relationships."
His job involves more than simply driving and delivering; on those occasions where an order is not completely filled, he may have to help clients, especially newer customers, to understand the re-order system. He also collects payments from clients, and jokes that there are days when by the time he heads home, it feels like he is "driving a Brinks truck."
Alex knows that Flanagan's has a reputation for good customer service, and he is proud to report that he hears about the good service, often. "I do hear that. I have customers who tell me that have switched to us for that reason, for our good service."
Judging from the comments across the board from this group of Flanagan team members, that reputation is not likely to suffer. These employees are totally committed to doing "everything I can to help them out"; they insist on "going above and beyond"; and they recognize that each one of them is "the face of Flanagans" to the people they deal with, internally and externally.
That is making the corporate commitment to service a customer-satisfying reality.