All I Know About Customer Service, I Learned as a Paper Boy

As a kid growing up in the less-than-opulent lumber towns of central Oregon, I understood early that I possessed a “customer service” mentality.

My first venture? Door-to-door sales; a publication called Grit – “Celebrating Rural America Since 1882”. I made a nickel for each sale. In my mind, though, I knew each customer had to be worth more to my pre-adolescent enterprise than five cents a week. I was a 52-pound business-man in my Toughskins and Keds – and I wanted more, for me and my customers.

Here, at a very young age, is where I learned that exceeding expectations through high-quality customer service – perhaps even with a less-than-extraordinary product – moves your company toward achieving even the loftiest goals. A culture of excellent service becomes your brand… and customers become your champions.


A culture of excellent service becomes your brand

From that experience, here are my customer service lessons learned:

Relationships are Royalty

Central to customer service is the art of building relationships. Customers, vendors and strategic partners all have a choice of who they work with – and they generally choose to do business with people they like (or at least who they respect). Offer a smile or anecdote. Ask how they’re doing. Engage in meaningful (read “non-work”) conversation. This interaction means a lot – in 1970, and now when we relate through Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook.


Central to customer service is the art of building relationships


Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

My first week, an elderly man paid me one month in advance. One condition: “I want the paper placed right… here,” he said, pointing to a specific spot on his porch. “With the last guy, I had to open the door all the way just to get my paper… I won’t tolerate that.” Happy for the dollar, I said, “Yes, Sir!” Two weeks later, however, I forgot my end of deal. The man, whose walking aid didn’t go down three inches to the porch without tremendous effort, fired me. Broken promise. Lost customer.

Never Throw Away an Opportunity to Hand Deliver

I learned quickly that a message or product delivered personally was good for business. In our digital world, of course, we know that hand delivery isn’t always possible. What a difference is made, however, when we hand-write a personal thank you note or go out of our way to smile. Or maybe offer to buy a customer or social media friend a cup of coffee when you’re in town. All good, personal ways to exceed expectations – and “hand deliver” your brand.


What a difference is made when we hand-write a personal thank you note


You Can Never Get Up Too Early (Metaphorically)

When I was selling Grit, my customers were always up early. So was I, partly because they respected me for getting up early to get my work done – and also because I wanted them to see me working hard. When do your customers do their best work? Or use your product the most? Do your customers see you?

Surprise Your Customers

It is amazing what happens when your customers are genuinely, pleasantly surprised by your brand. When I heard grandkids were visiting my customers, for example, I would tape pennies or Bazooka gum to the inside of the newspaper – creating a page-by-page treasure hunt for the children, and a pleasant distraction for my customers. In the scheme of things, not a huge deal – but a terrific way to extend the relationship, gain referrals, and create customers for life… for, literally, pennies.

Please take a moment to reflect on one 10-year-old’s advice – told some 40 years later. How would these “best practices” help your business? What impact would a “Paper Boy” culture have on your customers, employees and partners?


Want more? Read the next post in this series: 5 Changes Needed for Best-In-Class Customer Service

Art by augipa

Mark Babbitt is a speaker, author and blogger who serves as CEO and Founder of YouTern, a social community for college students, recent graduates and young professionals that Mashable calls a "Top 5 Online Community for Starting Your Career." He is also President of ExchangeGain and CMO and co-founder of Mark is the father of five and a grandfather; he and the woman who tolerates him (barely) call Seattle, Washington home.

  • Mr Ydir

    The small simple surprise is great way to retain customers, a good few years ago I ordered some gadgets from when the parcel arrived there was a bouns small packet of sweets. Thinking about it that must have been over 5 years ago, and I still remember the gesture and more importantly the site!

  • Mark, I absolutely love this post! Who can’t identify? Much later in my youth than you, I waited tables to pay some bills in college. I was all about the service, because that was how I’d been raised – Mom and Dad had both worked in restaurants as kids, and my sisters did a few years before me…. Thank God I had their examples to fall back on, because I was quite inept at first!

    But I was always polite. I showed my guests I cared about them and their experience. I remembered a lot of their favorite meals and drinks, and as I got to know my regulars, I made suggestions based on their tastes, rather than on what the manager wanted us to push that night. And guess what? Much to my surprise and delight, people began asking for me by name when they came in. For a kid (heck, maybe for an adult, for that matter), nothing could have pumped me up more than knowing that these folks actually looked forward to ME to make their weekend nights special.

    You can imagine what happened, eventually – and I mean months in, because as I say, I really did stink at the role when I started. My manager started giving me the pick of the stations, and scheduling me for the busiest times. I cared about people, it showed, they appreciated it, they showed that to my boss, and the owner and I both made more money as a result. It was a virtuous circle.

    No business owner or manager can serve their customers directly – not a paper or magazine publisher, not a restaurant owner, and not an enterprise software manufacturer. It’s the frontline people, the folks in the Value Zone (as HCL’s Vineet Nayar calls it), who do that. And no amount of tricks or skills are going to make that happen if they aren’t motivated to serve.

    Leaders, are you picking people who love to serve, as a matter of pride? Are you fostering that love? Or are you snuffing it out with your stifling processes and metrics?

    Learn from the paperboy, who grew up to be a widely respected CEO. Enable your people. Don’t control them.

    Great post, Mark! Thanks so much for lending your experience to our League of Extraordinary Thinkers!!

  • Shari Risoff

    Thank you Mark! This is an outstanding reminder that it’s all about the relationship. Not only is relationship selling not dead, it is still the key to retaining your customer. In the beginning you are selling the promise of your service. But like the story of the old man, you might get that first dollar, but when you don’t keep your word, you break the relationship as well as the promise. Thank you for affirming a culture of excellence.

    Ted, thank you for admonishing leaders to choose those who love to serve. I had a manager once tell me that I was not really a salesperson because I cared more about the customer than the sale. He never did understand why I exceeded quota every quarter.

    Today I will send handwritten thank you notes to the leaders I know that foster that culture of excellence. I have been blessed to work with some amazing ones!

  • Walter Wartenweiler

    Great reminder that trust takes a long time to build and can be destroyed during a blink of the eye and that quality is the basis of trust which is the basis of everything else that leads to success.

  • Alberto Alvarez

    Mark great and easy to read story. In essence customers (and potential customers) relations has to be a priority in every business. The best that can happen to your brand is being honestly recommended by your customers in their day to day interactions

  • Harold Gardner

    I remember a few years ago, I had promised that we would ship that day on a deal. My shipping clerk fouled up, and I didn’t find out until the next day. I called & apologized to the customer. I upgraded the shipping, but the funniest moment came when I carried a note over to the clerk. It was on my personal stationery, and the clerk wanted to know what it was. I explained that it was an apology note with a gift card in it. He was upset with me. His reason was that he had messed up not me; so he wanted to apologize. It took some explaining to help him realize that to the customer, I was the face of the company.

  • saka saheed

    Great insightful stories about Customer service. Thanks to you all for sharing with starters like us. Indeed, I have gained a lot of insights.

  • Doreen Dove

    I too had a paper route (PF Flyers for me however). Shared the bicycle route with my brother – he had 20 customers, I had one – one very important one. He carried 20 papers on his back, and his route was a mile. I carried one and I rode 2 miles each way to deliver. To this day, every single client of mine is worth the extra mile. I have built a business on personal service, and there is nothing more satisfying than the appreciation and respect that I receive from my clients. Thanks for the ‘ride’ down memory lane!

  • twigginton

    Great post – a digest I can give my team that is memorable. Thanks!

  • Marte Sorg

    As a kid, my sisters and I deliver The Grit, along with a local Daily. Great memories! And you are right on the money – to be successful even at that age one has to have some customer service skills.

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