• Gary Cop
Gary Cop is vice president and general manager of Jersey Pools and Spas Inc., a pool construction, retail and service company in Medford, N.J. Before joining Jersey Pools in 2004, he worked in communications for a Fortune 10 firm.
    Gary Cop is vice president and general manager of Jersey Pools and Spas Inc., a pool construction, retail and service company in Medford, N.J. Before joining Jersey Pools in 2004, he worked in communications for a Fortune 10 firm.

I entered the pool industry after working in communications for a Fortune 10 company.

I knew the company owner, Steve Heicklen, because he took care of my pool. He said, “I need you to come work for me.” I was actually getting ready to sign a contract with another large firm, but Steve positioned his offer in a way that made me pause and think about it. I said, “Okay, let me see if I can help and make a change.”

When I first came on board, Steve said he really wanted to lift the business, which was about 14 years old at the time, to the next level. My background was heavily concentrated on client care, so I wanted to drive a culture focused on the customer. I said, “We really need to talk to the clients. We need a survey where we get more than the typical 5- or 10-percent response rate.”

We identified about 1,000 clients to survey. Our staff provided input on people who likely would be interested in helping and those who did large volumes of business with us. But we also went to some who came to us only occasionally, to learn what would bring them in more often.

The survey was designed to determine where we needed improvement. It didn’t just ask if we did a good job, but had very specific questions that allowed us to really drill in on each division. There were 40 questions, the last five of which had an open-ended, essay-type format, to draw out the kind of input I really wanted.

We did not offer coupons or discount incentives. Instead, I took a great deal of time writing a sincere but brief letter explaining what I was trying to do to help the business and, most importantly, our clients. I tried to script the questions in a way that would be meaningful to the reader. I wanted them to understand that they would benefit if they filled out the survey, rather than believing only we stood to gain.

We sent the survey first-class mail, with a stamped envelope for them to return it. For a personal touch, the envelopes were hand-addressed. Everybody asks why we didn’t do this via email, but we’re all inundated with emails, and snail mail still has an air of importance. The survey was intended to show, from the minute it was received, that we were serious.

We got a much higher response than expected — about 68 percent — and great input on the essay questions, with a higher level of information than we’d even hoped. I credit the phrasing of the questions as one of the main reasons. Customers later said they saw a mutual interest in the survey.

I called customers who provided significant feedback and asked, “Would you be willing to take an hour or two on a Friday evening and meet with me?” I would assemble a group of clients, put up a big white board, and they would give me ideas for providing a better experience.

The survey and meetings resulted in a whole host of small changes, with everyone taking us directionally the right way — whether it’s a knock on the door to let weekly service customers know we’re on the property, a courtesy card left when nobody’s home, or having calls returned the same day. Clients can have great insight and offer specific feedback on changes that are needed. They suggested simple things, such as “How come you don’t have name tags on the shirts of all your retail staff? We’d like to know who we’re talking to.” We’ve since made that change and kept it there.

We also implemented larger changes. For example, clients provided us with input on our payment schedule. It was during one of the meetings where we could solicit for deeper details, and a lady said, “We want to pay you when you do big things.” So we lowered our deposit significantly and structured the payments to line up with major stages. (There aren’t any laws that I’m aware of in our state that govern payment structure.)

There were surprises. Our service manager at the time believed he was providing the highest level of service, but that’s where we were criticized the hardest.

About our retail operation, one customer pointed out that we were open late on Fridays but nobody’s ever in town then. “Why not open late on Wednesdays?” they said. We did, and we compared our sales results for the last two to three hours of Friday activity from the past six months with the last hours of Wednesday activity for the following six months. The Wednesday activity was up significantly.

So it’s not just that we asked questions and maybe did something. We made changes and then monitored them to see if they were successful. That’s the key to any survey — what you do with the information once you get it.

About a year after we did the survey, we sent a letter to everyone, explaining the changes we made as a result of the survey and thanking them for their input.

We’ve done subsequent surveys. We’ll do small ones almost once a week through Facebook, and we’ll do larger surveys every couple years. And it’s not unusual for me or a staff member to take a customer aside and say, “What do you think of this? Does this make sense to you?”

I would recommend any company do this type of investigation when they don’t like the direction they’re heading and wonder what they should do to change.

You have to stay in constant touch with clients, listen to them and be willing to do something if they’re giving good input. If not, you do your business and yourself a disservice. Most importantly you provide less than stellar service to your client base.