Soup to Lug Nuts

A customer service training program at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor is making a mark throughout the auto industry.

Doug Weisz was on the phone with Zingerman’s Mail Order, the online shop for the popular Ann Arbor delicatessen, when he found himself being misunderstood due to a weak cell connection.

“I’m sure the tone of my voice got testy,” says Weisz, a Subaru dealer in Auburn, Maine. At the end of the call, the Zingerman’s employee told him, “I know this hasn’t gone the way we would hope. I’d like to offer you free shipping as an apology.”

That gesture turned the bad experience around. “She was able to do something about it in the moment,” Weisz says.

To see other customer services that have gone above and beyond // click here. 

He was so impressed that he went to Ann Arbor last August to participate in a two-day customer service seminar offered through ZingTrain, Zingerman’s educational arm. In addition to “The Art of Giving Great Service,” the $1,250 seminar that Weisz attended, ZingTrain presents sessions on its own methods of open-book management and trademarked “bottom-line training.” Business visioning and leadership development are also addressed through dedicated seminars.

Then, last December, Lynn Weisz — Doug’s wife and Evergreen Subaru’s marketing manager — traveled to Ann Arbor along with the dealership’s service and sales leaders, taking advantage of ZingTrain’s 25-percent discount for the third enrollee. “Traditionally that’s the last thing a dealership will do,” Lynn says of bringing along the other managers. “We want them on the floor selling as much as they can.”

But she and her husband saw greater value in “the power of having all of our people in lock step,” she says. After returning from the training, the managers began to mentor two dozen Evergreen employees in ZingTrain’s leadership techniques, including Zingerman’s system of color-coding records of successful and problematic customer interactions for later analysis.

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s, stands with Maggie Bayless, co-founder and managing partner of ZingTrain, the Ann Arbor-based  company’s customer service training and leadership programs for companies and corporations.

By sending its staff members, Evergreen joined not only other car dealerships but also a list of clients from throughout the automotive industry that have taken ZingTrain courses. The roster extends from the Russell Speeder’s Car Wash chain, whose employees have attended the open-book management seminar, to OEM supplier companies Infineon, Bosch, and Siemens, which have completed an assortment of trainings.

In 2013, Tenneco, the manufacturer of automotive exhaust and suspension components, held its North American sales conference in Ypsilanti and tapped Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig to address 160 people on the art of great service. Susan D. Ulrey, executive director of customer experience for Tenneco’s aftermarket products division, had been a Zingerman’s customer before extending the invitation.

Since that sales conference, Ulrey has sent about a dozen staff members to Ann Arbor for the leadership training. She also brought a Zingerman’s facilitator to Monroe, where the aftermarket division is located, for customized training for a new 10-member group within the company. “They quickly dispense with the food and get to the heart of what their business is about,” she says of the ZingTrain approach.

“We really just share what we do,” Weinzweig says. “We don’t tell people what they ought to do.” The training, he explains, derives from “where we’ve messed up, how we’ve learned from that. Nothing is specific to food; it’s universal to business and organizational life.”

The formula is spelled out in Weinzweig’s book, Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service. There are three basic steps:

  1. Figure out what the customer wants.
  2. Get it for them accurately, politely, and enthusiastically.
  3. Go the extra mile for the customer.

Anyone walking into the deli on Detroit Street in Ann Arbor will experience the so-called 10-4 rule, which finds the greeter making eye contact from 10 feet away and giving a verbal greeting from 4 feet away. “Ignore your customers long enough and they will surely shop somewhere else,” Weinzweig says.

There are five steps to handle a complaint:

  1. Acknowledge the customer’s complaint.
  2. Sincerely apologize.
  3. Take action to make things right.
  4. Thank the customer for complaining.
  5. Write it up.

A red form is reserved for the latter purpose, and data and anecdotes are studied with care.

Measuring the benefits of Zingerman’s training is a nebulous art, but Ulrey says she has seen “significant improvement” in employees’ team-building, goal-setting, and commitment — especially with the new 10-member group in Monroe. She points out that Zingerman’s training also emphasizes providing great service to employees. For all those reasons, she has recommended the courses to other companies.

Philosophy and precepts are imparted in the classroom, but Doug Weisz noted their real-time application during his stint in Ann Arbor, when he and fellow students dined at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, the restaurant that opened in 2003.

Watching Weinzweig pour water and attend to customers’ needs while also monitoring the staff struck Weisz as “great hands-on management.” Still, while automakers emphasize the importance of providing sterling customer service, it’s up to the retailer to create it.

Weisz trades Weinzweig’s water pitcher for an ice scraper in his own role at Evergreen. “I’m here on a snow day cleaning cars,” he says. “You end up helping guide your team to make better decisions, but you need the process for support.”

Ultimately, what goes on at the Evergreen dealership resembles Zingerman’s philosophy of creating a “third place,” as Weinzweig terms it in an essay. People have their workplaces and homes, but they sometimes need an alternate spot for social or business interaction.

Not that a new-car showroom exactly qualifies as a hangout, but Lynn Weisz points to Evergreen’s amenities and fine touches. There’s a cozy fireplace, and the staff treats customers’ pets as “celebrities.”

The extra mile, third among Zingerman’s tenets for great customer service, is reached in surprising ways. “When people come in and see a playroom and coloring station, it’s disarming,” she says. “Now they can relax.” Meanwhile, it takes a kind of magic to gauge each customer’s needs. “We try to have a slide rule.”

Or as her husband, Doug, puts it, “Customer service is an ongoing process. It’s never fixed and never done.”