Ace Is the Place for Helpful Service

The hardware retailer's CEO and President John Venhuizen discusses the company's new Center for Excellence.
Customer Experience

More than ever, customer service has become a brand differentiator for businesses looking to increase their bottom lines. In fact, studies show that companies that deliver optimal customer service see consumers who increase their spending.

Ace Hardware is known for its customer service model that delivers friendly customer service aimed to treat customers like they're shopping on Main Street. The retailer announced in April the launch of itsAce Center for Excellence,abrandnew division designed to share the strategies and key principles of the brand'sunparalleled commitment to customer service with businesses and organizations around the world.Here, CEO and President John Venhuizen, discussed the goal of the center with 1to1 Media Editor-in-Chief Mila D'Antonio.

Let's talk about Ace's new Center for Excellence. How did this come about? What events in the market or within your company led to the creation of this?

My first reaction to this new idea was everyone will think it's the epitome of arrogance, but in hindsight it's driven more by necessity than by hubris. It's a response to what's been coming our way. After winning several of these JD Power awards in a rowwe were getting increased attention and requests from people asking, 'how do you do it?' I can say there are things that our independently operated stores do that are built into our DNA that give us great results.

What are some of those things?

People think [our service delivery] stems from our brand, but it comes from the values of our owners. It has to be what you stand for. A brand is nothing more than a promise but having a culture that says 'we're promise keepers' is critical. Companies all give lip service to customer service, but it has to start within you. But once you have culture built around that, then you have to operationalize customer service so the brand and service aren't left to chance.

Can you describe the components of the program?

We have a point leader. We feel that we're doing something that's differentiated. We didn't go out and build a new division and hire a bunch of bubbly speakers to regurgitate the Ace story. These are people who are engaged in Ace-the people living and breathing it every day. It's about fulfilling and measuring promises and instilling that into the culture. That's a place where many companies fall down.

How many people work in The Center of Excellence?

It's a combination of Ace retailers and the executive team. We have four or five folks who deliver keynote presentations. We also do someworkshops for our clients to teach the strategies and tools via a classroom setting.

What kinds of companies are asking for help?

Retailers, manufacturers, trucking companies, large associations

Who within the organization championed and spearheaded this?

We had internal discussions on how to put it together but it was the consuming public's idea. It was in response to those people who were reaching out and saying 'you guys are doing something right. How do you deliver on your promise?'

Is there a common challenge they share around not being able to evolve their CX strategies?

Our business is capital intensive, increasingly complex, and highly competitive. If we think about it from our perspectivewe often use a David and Goliath story. There's something about leveraging a small business mindset in meeting these challenges. We strip out the bureaucracy and act with the nimbleness of a small business owner. Also, turnover is big in retail. Your brand is on the backs of a huge number of people in companies who are often disengaged and the least paid. We often talk about things we've done to inspire people that there's something bigger here than just money.

How do you capture the essence of your service strategy for participants of the Center of Excellence?

One thing we talk about is where things are headed with customer service. Technology is disrupting retailers every day. Look at Radio Shack. They filed for bankruptcy, but Amazon does [customer strategy] exceedingly well. Take omnichannel retailing. One of the ways we frame it is this: In this world that is increasingly preoccupied, we're betting the farm at Ace that we don't lose sight of two timeless principles: face-to-face interaction and human relationships. These will always have the potential to stir the human soul. When you can do that it's not only good for business but also for society and that can differentiate you there from most companies. We believe it is our core and some of the principles around that is what we try to bake into this Ace Center of Excellence.

What challenges are you facing in terms of delivering the customer experience in your own company and how are you overcoming those challenges?

We use this phrase that we stole from Shep Hykenour goal is to amaze every customer, every time. Every time a customer interacts he becomes more or less engaged. You can't fake it. It has to be ongoing or it will wear you out.

What trends do you see emerging over the next year as it relates to customer experience and service?

Customer service is a strategy that's timeless regardless of changes.