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A Combination of Communication and Organization

Episode 49

120921 podcast Closet America2

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Closet America is all about organization, beauty, and joy. It’s what they do and how they do it, and each department works together to create a memorable customer experience. With communication at the center of its success, owner Skip LaBella shares how they stay connected over the sometimes-lengthy process, from getting a quote to the final installation day. Reviewer Rae M. shares what stood out most about her interactions with the company and how her life has improved since hiring their services.

On the Yelp Blog: Read more abut how Closet America’s top-to-bottom commitment to organization has paid off with glowing results—from hiring and training to customer appreciation.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

RAE: I was looking to do, I guess, some spring type cleaning within my house, since we’ve all been home during this pandemic. And I was thinking, ‘gee, let me figure out what I can do with my closet,’ because I had pretty nice-sized closets, but they weren’t organized. So I was like, what can I do? And I received a flyer in the mail. And I was like, ‘I got to do something with these closets cause they’re getting on my nerves.’ So I reached out and that’s how that came about.

EMILY: Elite Yelp reviewer Rae needed help making sense of her closet space, and she’s not alone. According to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing professionals, 46% of Americans say their closets are the biggest pain point in their home organization.

When that flyer landed in her mailbox, Rae thought she could at least get an estimate and maybe some ideas for her closets. But Closet America designer Heather more than delivered. Because the work is multi-phased and detailed, Rae left a rather long review. Let’s take a listen.

RAE: Closet America is the best thing since sliced bread. I have the luxury of having several closets in my home, but I realized after all of them seem to be bursting at the seams with clothing, shoes, accessories, and random storage containers that I needed some help organizing all of these things. In comes a flyer I received about Closet America. I thought, well, it wouldn’t hurt to get an estimate. I made a call and scheduled an appointment for an estimate and walkthrough of possible ideas.

Heather, the design consultant arrived at my door, looking chic and very high fashion. After introductions she explained she previously owned her own design company. I thought to myself, ‘yeah, they have the perfect person coming to the homes for this.’ I got her to three closets I needed assistance with and she surveyed the area, did some measurements, and listened to my concerns.

We then sat down and she showed me her ideas on her laptop. All 3D images. I was amazed. I knew exactly how my closets would look, and I was able to make any changes or ask any questions. The material colors, extra add-ons were also displayed. She gave suggestions of things I didn’t think I needed or wanted.

I was called a few times from the company to remind me of my installation date. Since we’re in a pandemic, they had a form for me to complete ensuring I was COVID-free as well as their names declaring they were COVID-free. They were masked up and ready to go. The final product. Whoo. They took my closets to heights I didn’t even think were possible. Heather’s vision, my concerns, and the installer’s hard work all paid off.

I can’t describe how much I truly love my closets. It was driving me crazy to have all of my clothes and storage containers all around my house in preparation for this installation. But it was well worth the process. Now I will say this company isn’t the cheapest, but you get what you pay for. And I’m oh so glad I trusted the process.

If you’re on the fence about upgrading your closets, take it from me. It’s so worth it. Once you go Closet America, you won’t go back.

EMILY: That is the epitome of a thorough and useful review. It’s also glowing.

Closet America owner Skip LaBella started his business with a fishing buddy. While Skip had no personal experience in home design or construction, his business partner did, and when the opportunity came along to open Closet America, Skip jumped at the chance. He’s selling something more than just hangers and drawers, though.

SKIP: What we sell is organization. We like to say, organization, beauty and joy. It’s what we do and how we do it. And that’s really important because it’s what we deliver everyday to homeowners that trust us to do business with them.

And it’s the way that we want to work ourselves. It’s the way that we want to feel when we interact with one another. That beauty component even comes down to how well do we organize our installation vehicles? Do they look like we’re an organization company? Or do they look like someone threw a bunch of tools and stuff in the back of a van to show up, to go install some parts?

EMILY: That top to bottom organization is something Closet America holds dear, and every detail about the business reflects those core values: organization, beauty, and joy. In order to live that value out, Skip said they needed to make sure every employee represented the company well.

SKIP: There’s a lot of home improvement companies that use subcontractors and we heavily evaluated that option in the beginning because to be honest with you, it can bring your costs way down.

However, the downside and the reason we chose to go the other way, even though it’s more expensive, is that we didn’t care just about what gets done, but we care about how it gets done. And if you are following the way that laws are written for subcontractors, you can’t tell them how to do it. Otherwise that’s an employee.

So we said, well, we do care about how they do it. We care about the tools they show up with. We care about the vehicle that they’re in. We care about what they’re wearing. We care about  what they look like, sound like. Back to organization, beauty and joy, right?

Beauty in the organized installer as well. So we hire them and we put them through quite a training process. I don’t think we’ve ever hired an installer that we’ve just put into the field. We’ve made them work as a helper and serve as an apprentice, even if they were an experienced person. And that’s because we have a way of doing things and we have a process for everything we do.

What we train is that if you follow the process, there are predictable and repeatable results. And if you deviate from the process, anything can happen. So follow the process. So that’s the whole thing about employees versus subs and our employees in the field. In terms of, on-brand right? So we don’t let them wear whatever they want to wear. We buy them branded shirts, branded hats. We require that they wear belts. You can use your imagination there. We buy them work pants and we have an allowance to continue to replenish those things throughout the year. The best way for me to describe it is that our installers are the guys that you want to come into your home.

And that’s not taken lightly because we are working in the most intimate part of your home, right? It’s not like we’re hanging gutters on the outside of your house or putting a roof on or landscaping. We are in your bedroom. It better be someone that you want in your house. So we never forget that.

EMILY: Skip’s entire crew really impressed Rae, who—as a bit of a self-admitted germaphobe—was concerned about having installers in her home for extended periods of time. It wasn’t a problem with the crew from Closet America, though. They observed all current COVID protocols at the time of Rae’s installation and made her feel like her closets were in good, experienced hands.

RAE: They came in on time, they got to work, they answered any questions that I had. They were able to let me know that if you have anything that you want to put back in—anything like, I think it was a valet, like just to hang your clothes up maybe for the week. If you want to just iron them out and just set them up for the week, we can do that.

Anything that you might think of later on down the line, we can come back and do this. And since it’s here for a lifetime, the lifetime of the house, you can do whatever you want. So it’s just that they know what they’re doing and they exude it to you, the customer. It’s appreciated. They know what you want before you can even really say it.

SKIP: COVID threw a monkey wrench into everything for everyone, obviously. And so the challenge was: How do we give homeowners that will have us—because some wouldn’t even have us—how do we give them the confidence to safely go into their homes? And then, the flip side for our employees, because remember if you recall at the very beginning of COVID, getting COVID was a death sentence, right?

So we tried to follow best practices put out there by the CDC and the WHO and other companies that we thought were doing a good job in terms of leadership. So we went through a lot of stuff—things that in retrospect might’ve been overkill, but the things that we had to do to give our customers and our own employees the confidence to continue to do business.

EMILY: The foundation of good customer service is solid communication, and that was especially true during the pandemic. And it’s even more important in a business with a long time frame from sales to installation, like Closet America has.

SKIP: Every customer is in our CRM, and we live by that. Every touch point with the customer is entered into the system. So that the next person that has an interaction can see what’s taken place up to this point. That starts with the initial phone call as a prospect, when the homeowner calls us to say, ‘Hey, I’m considering doing closets.’ So they’re in our system at that point, down to if a designer comes to their home, and then what happens on that appointment. And then once customer service takes over, they have a process by which they do a welcome call the day after the appointment on a purchase. And they’ll collaborate with our installation team to assess the job and determine: What are the requirements for this installation?

We’ll then set the installation. Sometimes it’s set tentatively from the home, but we’ll validate that once we get back to the office and we have all the right people looking at it. From there, once we set that installation date, we have sort of touch points throughout. And if it’s a longer wait like right now—there’s a lot of people doing home improvements—there’ll be more touch points all with an eye toward not sort of driving the homeowner crazy, right?

This is probably not the most important thing in their lives right now. Certainly we know it’s important and we want to give it that proper respect for them. But they have other things going on also, so we don’t want to over-communicate.

EMILY: Skip mentioned his CRM, or customer relationship management software, which is something many businesses use to stay on top of their customer service. He said it is a symbiotic relationship between people and technology, and if it’s working right, each makes the other better. That technology extends to the design and sales side of Closet America.

One of the things Rae appreciated about Closet America were the 3D renderings of her closet provided by her designer. We’re not all able to see things in two dimensions or read blueprints and visualize the end result.

SKIP: One thing that we take a lot of pride in is that every picture you see from us is actually one of our installations. So it’s something that a Closet America employee designed, our factory manufactured, and our installers installed. They’re not studio shots created by a headquarters somewhere for our branch to go use in their selling process.

This is work done by the people you’re meeting with. So we take a lot of pride in that. And then beyond all that imagery that we create, we also have a design software and we’re particularly proud of the fact that from the day we launched Closet America, we had a design software that allowed us to design electronically in the home and show the image in color and in 3D.

And when we did that back when we launched Closet America, there were not many people anywhere in the country doing that. So we’re very proud of that. It’s part of what we’ve done from day one. And that same technology then actually runs the equipment in our shop. So it’s called screen-to-machine technology. So we design it, you see it. And then that’s what comes out of the equipment in our manufacturing facility.

EMILY: Skip is incredibly proud of the work his team does in each and every department. From the employees who answer the phones and schedule appointments to the designers and installers who meet face to face with the customers, each person impacts the overall customer experience. There’s a saying in business that managers should hire people who are smarter and more talented than they are themselves, because the people who work for you represent you and your brand. For Skip, that also means hiring people who fit in with the culture he’s established at Closet America.

SKIP: First of all, we try to hire folks with some kind of relevant experience in the design field, right? Then from there, we put them through Closet America training, and that’s several weeks of learning our system, learning our products, making sure that that person has a cultural fit, right?

You have to be someone that takes pleasure in serving other people and solving their problems. And the first step to that is listening to what they say their problems are. As a designer, you see a lot of people in the course of a week, a month, a year, and you might walk into someone’s closet and say, ‘oh, I see what’s wrong here,’ but that’s not at all what the customer calls you out for. So you can’t make those assumptions. You have to ask, ‘what is it that caused you to call us to come out?’ So that we know what we’re trying to solve. We can then talk about maybe some other things that they hadn’t even thought of. And that sounds like what Heather did for Ray right after we addressed her immediate needs. We talked about some other things.

So had Heather not queried—because Rae said she had a roofing person there at the same time—and so Heather spent about 20 minutes in the closet, measuring and looking at things. Had Heather just stopped there, she wouldn’t have known that Rae was a Christmas guru and needed space to store all her holiday decorations, right? She wouldn’t have known that. So you have to ask me those questions about the space or it just isn’t going to work.

EMILY: In these final minutes, I want to talk about reviews. I speak to a lot of small business owners, and 99% of them have a love/hate relationship with reviews. Great reviews are, well, great! And bad reviews can feel like a punch in the gut. I tell small business owners that once they get past the initial shock of a bad review, they can be used to improve your business. And that’s something Skip and the team at Closet America live by as well.

SKIP: I have to give you two answers, right? One is from the heart and one’s from the head.  From the heart I hate them and I love them because one day you feel loved and the other day you feel hated and you’ve disappointed, and that is a killer, right? Now intellectually, we actually get a lot more out of negative reviews than we get positive reviews because it makes us better.

Not a single review on Closet America goes without notice here in our company. As a matter of fact, we’ve taken it to a new level. We’ve actually hired a third-party company and we review every single customer. So the good side of that is we’ve been doing that for about 10 years now and we’ve surveyed every single customer we’ve ever installed.

And we’ve got over a 97% favorable rating. Meaning those people would refer us to a friend and use us again. But it’s those others that we learned from. Those are the ones that make us better. And I can tell the other great thing about that is it’s really helped with the culture of the organization when it comes to pleasing clients.

Because if we get a review that’s less than stellar—and I mean, it can be just an average review. It could even just be someone who’s a tough grader and is actually happy because we called these people afterwards. But you can tell that the attitude in the office, everything just kind of goes down a notch. That’s how much everybody cares about that customer feedback and really believes in our objective of making sure that customer is happy because they trusted us now.

EMILY: One of the most important pieces of advice I can give small business owners is to do exactly what Skip and Closet America are doing: respond to all of your reviews on Yelp, both positive and negative. When potential clients are looking at Yelp reviews, they’re not only reading the good reviews, but also looking at how a business responds to the bad reviews. It can make a difference between a potential client and one who actually picks up the phone.

RAE: I did see the one that Closet America sent me, which was pretty cool. I do sometimes receive businesses that will send us messages and say, ‘oh, you know what? That’s great. I appreciate you stopping.’ So that means a lot because at least it means that they’re reading it. And they’re thinking, ‘well, this is pretty nice. They took the time out to do this.’ But sometimes I’ll get like two or three words from a business: ‘Thanks for coming in,’ and I’m thinking, jeez that’s kinda lame. You could at least put a little umph to it. I just gave you five stars or four stars.

But I mean, I get it. You’re probably busy, but I feel like, you know, I’ve put in some time writing this review, you could at least say a little bit more than that, but okay.

Cause that’s not why I do Yelp. It’s really just to let people know how I feel about a business, but it does make me feel good because it lets me know that I’m being heard. And sometimes I’m before I can even leave a place, sometimes I’m writing my review because I want to remember the whole vision that I had.

EMILY: Rae’s review was thorough, but she has a method to her reviewing. She reviews businesses the way she wants to read reviews—with solid, detailed, and useful information. To close us out, Rae’s going to share why she reviews.

RAE: I really enjoy doing reviews only because like myself, I like to look at Yelp reviews first, before I go to anything else, just to see what I get from other consumers.

But when I look at reviews, sometimes I’m getting horrible reviews. I’m getting things that I don’t care about. Like, ‘oh, I wouldn’t do this.’ Or I hated how this person did that. I’m not getting substantial reviews. I want to know stuff like I would put out: How was the service? How was the wait time? How was this? Things that I write in my reviews are things that I want to know about and other people’s reviews. So the reason why I do my reviews is because I feel like other people want to know that too.

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