Last updated: 26 february, 2010 - 14:28 GMT

Service in Seattle

About this programme by Peter Day

The city of Seattle is tucked away in the northwest corner of the contiguous USA. It may be a long way from everywhere else, but Seattle has produced some blockbuster enterprises: the aircraft giant Boeing was founded there in 1916, using the wood from the huge surrounding forests of Washington State.

Boeing moved its HQ to Chicago only recently and still builds many of its planes in vast plants in and around Seattle.

The port of Seattle has handled much of America's coffee imports for more than 100 years, so it's not surprising that the giant coffeehouse chain Starbucks started there.

The huge warehouse store business Costco is there, too and, biggest of all, Seattle is where Bill Gates and his huge software company Microsoft come from ... a corporation that has spawned an industry of similar enterprises in the area.

But this week's programme from Seattle features another Seattle business: the department store chain Nordstrom. Still family-managed, it was started with the proceeds of a stake in the Alaska gold rush by John Nordstrom in 1901.

Board game

The group's absolute speciality is customer service: as the company puts it "earning the trust of our customers, one at a time".

There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal) of a woman who took a faulty car tyre back to Nordstrom; the store replaced it, and then explained that they don’t sell car tyres. That’s service!

Some time ago in Seattle I met an entertaining Scots-born entrepreneur called Richard Tait, who left Microsoft where he's been very successful to create a fabulously popular old-fashioned board game called Cranium. It made him a fortune when he sold it a few years ago.

Richard Tait is now a brand consultant with his own firm called "boomboom" and an energetic motivational speaker on the conference circuit, fascinated by service.

"It's so rare today to have an experience where you feel delighted as a customer," says Richard Tait.

He makes no bones about calling the way that companies delivery this superior service: "servitude", a humbling word most management experts would hesitate to use.


Talking about this in Global Business he adds to the Nordstrom legend with what he assures me is a true story.

Richard Tait wanted to test the locally well-known principle that a Nordstrom store closes up only when the last customer leaves.

So he sent a shopaholic friend into one of a Nordstrom in Seattle on a Friday evening when the place was open for late night shopping. It got to closing time, 9pm, and she was still there, still dithering over the choice of shoes.

Ten past nine, and the store is still open, the counter staff still in position. Nine-15, then 9.20; store still not closed. Finally the manic shopper manages to make up her mind: those are the ones, she says.

And the shop assistant replies, not with a sigh, but a question: "Would madam like a handbag to match?"

That, says Richard Tait, is customer service. In Seattle.

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  • Peter Day looks at the new communications methods that are changing the way firms do their training.



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