Creating Customers for Life featuring Steve Garske and Mike Hilliard with Par Aide Products Co.
Written by John P. Palen for Minnesota Business Magazine November 2012
I work with CEOs and owners who feel frustrated these days by pricing pressures, competition from outside the United States that encroaches on their market share, and a general sense that customers will drop them at the slightest pushback on requests. It's easy to get reactionary and lose focus on core principles when profits don't measure up to expectations.
This is usually the time when I give the "what do you stand for" speech. I ask these leaders about their promise to customers, their vision for the company, and why they got into business in the first place. It's a way to test their passion and endurance, to redirect their energy toward the original ideals that first made them successful. Often they’ll talk about personal passions and a desire to solve problems — and there’s usually a story of origin that reminds them of who they were, are, and want to be.
When Steve Garske took over the family business from his father, Joe, in 1986, he thought that growth was about developing more diverse products, having more inventory and selling more units per quarter. He was wrong.
At the time, Par Aide Products Co. in Lino Lakes was known as the originator of the cherry red golf ball washers found on so many golf courses. The patented up/down washing mechanism sprung from Joe Garske's passion for golf and his realization that ball washers could be handy after an ugly shot from the rough. He demonstrated his invention at a PGA Tournament in 1954 and the product line expanded from there.
But Joe never focused on the number of products. He focused on the quality of the products and the satisfaction of customers. His son quickly learned that sticking to the original brand had to be priority one.
"We innovate on products that our customers need, want and appreciate," Steve Garske said of Par Aide's business model. "They trust our quality through our brand. As a result, we can make margin and volume exceptions in order to bring products to market that support the brand and may promote other higher volume products."
Keeping customers involved in this model is also a big part of the brand. Not only do customers dictate the product line innovations, they also get immediate response to questions and problems. Par Aide doesn't employ a receptionist or an automated service center. Live customer service reps answer the phones and have the power to fix a problem on the spot.
"You can waste a lot of money making $50 decisions that may seem efficient but don't help customers," said Mike Hilliard, vice president since 2000. "As long as our customer service reps do things for the right reasons, no one can give away too much or make a mistake with how a customer problem is resolved."
Of course, not every product change or innovation is a home run. But sticking to customer satisfaction 100 percent of the time keeps Par Aide's brand approval high in the market. "The customers who I have met and discussed problems with...they are customers for life," Steve Garske says.
Instead of looking outside the company for reasons or answers to decreased profits, maybe the answer is on the phone right now with a service request worth staying late to solve. It just might lead to your company's next great growth opportunity.
Tips for Lifelong Customers
- Know what you stand for: who you serve, what you promise and how you price and deliver it regardless of the competition.
- Train and empower customer service people to solve a problem in whatever way they think is best. Build a culture of service.
- Keep innovating even if sometimes you don't receive the expected ROI.
- Marketing must consistently identify who you are through your website, catalogues, ads, tradeshows, clothing and print materials.
- Act promptly to meet customer needs and stay late if necessary.