Friday, October 3, 2008

Christmas Eve, 1971

It was a Christmas Eve the weatherman had decided to frown upon.

Sleet and freezing rain pelted the city of just over 100,000 souls, a blue-collar type of town that included two lonely gas jockeys working the graveyard shift.

Somewhere around 11 o’clock that evening, a man well into his seventies, pulls up to the service station. Shiny blue Meteor. Wife by his side. The elderly gentleman bounces into the glassed-in cubicle perched on the gas island - more of an over sized phone booth - and after wishing the occupants a Merry Christmas, asks “how’s business?” Almost instantaneously, the phone rings with a caller asking an attendant if he could send a tow truck to the nearby St. Rose Church. He and his family had just left the 10 o’clock Christmas mass and unfortunately, their vehicle was now stuck in an unforgiving snow bank.

“I’m sorry sir but we don’t have a tow truck and besides, there is nobody else open. It’s Christmas Eve after all. There really isn’t much we can do”

The telephone was placed back on the receiver.

The elderly gentleman, overhearing the conversation asks “what was that all about?”

The 17-year old attendant explained the situation, adding he couldn't’t help since there were no resources at his disposal. And hey, it was Christmas Eve.

The gentleman, his name was Kenneth, looks around and spies some 20-pound bags of rock salt and without any pause, orders the two attendants to begin loading several bags in his trunk. He then pays for the merchandise, confirms directions to the church and in a flash he and his missus are off to render assistance to the stranded family.

Three decades later, hundreds of people in that company are still talking about what happened that night in Saint John, New Brunswick.

One can only imagine the look on the caller’s face when no more than 5 minutes after calling an Irving service station a few blocks away, none other than Kenneth Colin himself shows up to help dig he and his family out.

Kenneth Colin “KC” Irving.

Slowly, the lesson of what had just transpired began to dawn on the 17-year old named Joel.

“This guy will never be able to buy anything but Irving gas and Irving home heating fuel for the rest of his life. That’s brilliant”

When the events of Christmas Eve 1971 had unfolded, KC Irving had accomplished more in a lifetime that anyone would dare to dream. To those who knew him, the humility of his deeds that evening were hardly surprising considering KC’s own humble beginnings in the early 1920’s, owning and operating a single service station in his tiny hometown of Buctouche, New Brunswick. He would go on to forge a business empire, rivaled by few, with an enduring legacy that has touched thousands of livelihoods and communities all over Atlantic Canada and beyond.

To a young, impressionable Joel Levesque, who would eventually become one of Canada’s top public relations experts with Moosehead Breweries, the imprint of what happened that otherwise cruel Christmas Eve has never left.

Perhaps one of the greatest business lessons of all time from one of its greatest masters. A lesson KC captured one day in ’24 when he put pen to paper:

“Look after the customer … and they’ll look after you”

Many of his critics called KC a cranky old bastard who cared only about cash. The Maritimes answer to Scrooge McDuck. But last time I checked, no one has ever erected a statue to honor a critic. Actions always speak louder than words. And Kenneth, if nothing else, was a doer of deeds who always cared about his customer. Including the one who might be back tomorrow.

What brands have you noticed that are consistent in their ability to "look after the customer"?

Do you have a customer service story to share that could bring a smile to someone's day?

Are there more lessons from this story than meets the eye?

p.s... Here is but one example of a story that connects with what KC was teaching that night back in '71. My guess is that it would apply to any business of any size.

“Numbers don’t mean anything. It’s people who count” WILL ROGERS


Mike Shanks said...

Mr. Maxwell,

Another great example of exceptional customer service. Something that in our day to day running of a business we can easily forget. Focusing on today and "the numbers" allows you to become misguided on your goals. In a service industry we cannot consider an "us and them" mentality. We can only exist because of our clients and the growth of our business is dependant on the viral aspects of our service.

We must not hesitate in doing acts such as these. It must become who we are. We must change our beliefs so our actions will follow.

Thank you for provoking (and reminding).

Mike Shanks

Gair Maxwell said...

Wouldn't it be great Mike if we could all start an epidemic of these types of stories? I am sure there must be one or two from the Waterloo Wellington area with Others who read this post no doubt have some of those stories to share as well

Mike Shanks said...

OK I'll give you one.

Mike has gone well above and beyond in helping me understand the private sale difference. I had been trying to sell my home with a few real estate agents for the past four years at high commission rates and was not getting the service or the results that I was looking for. I contacted Mike Shanks when I first learned of to have him tell me what they could do for me. I had never sold a home privately before and was worried that I would not know what to do. Mike came over one evening and went over everything with me. He took the time to listen to my questions, and there were lots. He answered each and every one of them. As time went on I had more questions. It did not seem to matter whether I called at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday or 8 a.m. on a Sunday, either Mike or Yvette would take the time to answer my questions and help assure me when I wavered on my ability to sell my own home. I even took the listing down for a short period and they allowed me to put it back up at no charge! In the end with their support I was able to sell my home privately and save $11,250 + GST in real estate commissions! I truly believe that without their support I would not have been successful as they really did support and encourage me through this whole process. For that I am so thankful.”

Anyone else got one???