by Greg Meakin

I have found that all nice companies have their Sally. Sally is the person who runs the company like a Swiss watch, greets customers, and keeps them loyal for life. Sally is the Go-To person who has all the answers – for customers, for vendors, for employees, and for anyone needing help right away.


There is always a person running these companies, and it ain’t the CEO. It’s Sally.

I had a song playing in my head for most of last week, and I couldn’t remember where I had heard it. It played so much, a few times I had to focus on a different song in order to stop this song from playing in my head. It was one of those.

Only this morning did I realize where that mysterious song came from. It was the On-Hold music for a major bank I was working with. It was a successful, household name bank, been around for decades, wonderful products and services – and it absolutely sucked to work with them.

Yes, it was one of those awful companies you would pay a hefty service fee to not have to receive any service from them.

You just couldn’t contact them. Actually, scratch that. You just couldn’t contact them without being put on hold forty times, and wanting to jump off a bridge after listening to the music loop for the umpteenth time. Really nice On-Hold music though, and I do think that’s why it played in my head for so long. It is clear that management selected its On-Hold music very carefully.  

After hanging around the business world for four decades, I can picture the corporate meeting about their phone process – the comforting music choice for customers holding, the sophisticated phone system that can analyze everything for management, the Focus Group templates and strategic word tracks for the odd time an actual human is forced to answer.   

I have no idea why some of the smartest executives can be so stupid sometimes. Multiple college degrees and you can’t figure out how to answer your phone? I just don’t know anything more stupid than making customers mad at you before you even start doing business with them.

You know, those wandering menus that ask fifteen questions, including your horoscope sign, before you can talk to a person?   

And then when you finally reach a human being, they often transfer you back to the main menu, or tell you to visit online. Oh, those creepy phone trees with the endless snarly branches.  

And then there are other companies. Nice companies.

I say “nice” companies because they clearly have a Sally, the one everyone loves doing business with, and keeps customers coming back.  

Many moons ago, when I was owner and CEO of a busy company with a few dozen employees, my Sally’s name was Denise. She was actually my CFO, but she was indeed a Sally. Denise did everything from the company’s books, to answering phones, to being mom to employees, to working with suppliers, to dealing with me!

But most importantly, everyone loved Denise, and loved the company by proxy. She was the person who people would remember, who people would go to, who people would trust.

I was taught decades ago in management training that the most important employee is often the receptionist. The difference with being greeted by a great receptionist, or a nightmare receptionist, can be the difference between success and failure of the entire company. How a prospective customer interacts with your company for the first time often determines position in the marketplace and actual profitability, never mind just dealing with an annoyed caller or two now and then.

I knew I was dealing with a Sally when I recently called a finance company on a car title issue. It was a situation where a notarized form needed to be produced by the finance company, and faxed to a government licensing agency.

The Sally I dealt with that magical day was a Patty. I knew, and Patty knew, that this was an infrequent request, and that it normally could go through a week-long process or worse. What happened however, was Patty jumped into action and within ten minutes the correct notarized form was produced, and faxed at no charge.

I say “magical day” because I am so used to dealing with lousy companies, and goofy fees for everything. Patty so exceeded my expectations, and cut through any red tape or corporate obstacles facing her, and got the job done for me. Right down to faxing the form, and calling me to pick up the original.

She just got it done, and done quickly. Compared to the stress and nonsense of dealing with so many loser companies today, it was magical moment for me.

I felt enthusiasm and trust for Patty and her company. It was a branding guy’s utopia. I became not just a satisfied customer, I became a stark-raving fan.

Some really smart executives tell me it’s impossible to provide what I call “1950s handshake” service these days. They are way too big is always the excuse – often in fancier, modern words.

Then I tell them about PEMCO insurance in Seattle. Big company. Actually, I don’t dwell on the brand name, although I like it. I remember Mick. And Christine.

Although I personally dislike shopping, or being a consumer of most frivolities these days, now and then I am forced to shop. Like so many don’t like shopping for cars, I can’t stand shopping for insurance. I recently chose to re-tool my household’s insurance, and actually selected an insurance company of which to transfer all my policies. I had worked with this company while I was in the auto industry, and I was ready to make it my new home for personal insurance.

I thought I loved their brand…until I actually tried to do business with them.

Sadly, the company made it just too difficult to work with them from the get-go. Being a military membership organization, my wife and I were put through a family verification process that was more complicated than I would have predicted.

It was a situation where we were military brats of deceased parents, which required a battery of questions. After a few rounds of forwarding birth certificates, and discovering I needed an additional membership step, I gave up and called my second choice, PEMCO.

And after one quick menu question, Mick answered. Mick sold me my requested policies, right on the spot. He then gave me his direct number. Whenever I called Mick, he would answer or call back quickly. It was so weird.

And then, Christine. Christine handled one of my policies through a different department. Just like Mick, she gave me her direct number, and when I call her she answers. Christine is so cool.

This is not a silly Yelp review, it is making a broader point. Is Sally a real person? Sure. Years ago, I developed and managed a call center for Toyota, and there was a Sally who worked for me. Sally was one of the nicest employees I ever had, and as I have described earlier, Sally was the go-to person of the department, and the loving, confident voice on the phone to the customers.

She had all the answers, knew the company backward and forward, didn’t have to fumble through memorized scripts and telephone transferring nonsense. Our customers loved Sally, and usually asked for her personally.

Sally’s demeanor became the example I often shared with managers about what a great customer experience feels like. The warmth. The concern. From minute-one to years beyond, you can always count on Sally to be there for you. Sally can be a single employee – as is often the case with smaller companies – but Sally can also be how a team of employees greets and interacts with customers.

He or she can be an upper manager, or entry level employee, and can simply be a company’s culture. The Sally difference is it must be real. It must be genuine. It must reflect an earnest concern for people, an earnest love for the company, and the gift of creating happy, loyal customers.    

When it feels like a company runs smoothly, has happy employees, and you feel happy because they are happy, rest assured it is a company with a Sally Culture.

In this age of online communication, so often the first contact with a company is via a keyboard, and dealing with some sort of computer screen. I leave this perennial  debate of the balancing act between personalized contact and online process to others.

The message here – especially in this era of mammoth companies and micro-managing corporate wonks – is really in the form of three questions:  

1. Do your customers feel like they have just worked with Sally?

2. Were their needs met at a fair price, their questions answered with knowledge, confidence and good cheer, and did they feel great after working with your company?

3. Who is your Sally?

This Pop-Quiz is now complete. And if you have any questions about the quiz itself, just ask Sally.   

Copyright © 2017 by Greg Meakin

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