A few months ago, I wrote about a slate producer in the U.K., and the headline described the company philosophy as a “culture of quality.” In writing those words, I wanted to express what I viewed as an overall feeling of pride and craftsmanship that extended to all areas of the company — from the quarries to the production to the office personnel.

To be honest, this business approach is not all that uncommon in the stone industry — especially when examining companies that operate on a smaller scale than what I saw in England. It is one thing for the owner or manager of a company to emphasize service and quality, but it is quite another to see this emphasis maintained at all levels of production, sales, installation, etc. Yet as tough as this can be to achieve day in and day out, I see it all the time in the stone industry, and I am fairly sure that there is a higher percentage of these types of businesses in the stone trade than in most other sectors.

In all fairness, it should be this way. People are coming into a shop to spend thousands of dollars, so if someone in the office is having a bad day, it should not affect the customer who is about to write a big check. In fact, they probably don’t even need to know about it.

As I said, this generally is not a problem at most of the stone suppliers and fabrication shops I have visited over the years. In fact, during the height of the recession, I would say that customer service was at an all-time high in our industry.

Here are three reasons why I think this was the case:

  • When it came time to cut staff, a lot of the complainers and bad apples were the first to go.
  • Shops and showrooms weren’t all that busy, so the support staff was not overwhelmed
  • by customers.
  • People were really desperate for sales, so even the few remaining complainers had to at least fake a smile.

Now that we are ever-so-slowly moving past the recession, however, I have seen a couple of cracks in the armor. Specifically, I have seen a negative vibe at two different showrooms in the past couple of weeks that bears mentioning. I should note that neither of these exchanges involved me personally. I am just the reporter, and I do not bring my checkbook to a shop, so it doesn’t really matter what happens to me.

  • In one case, I was waiting in a small showroom, where a pair of (unescorted) homeowners was looking at samples and edge treatments. In the background, two employees were loudly complaining about their work schedules. (Apparently, they had a problem with another employee who didn’t have to work evenings or weekends. At least that’s the way that the homeowners and I interpreted it.) I know they weren’t directly being rude to the customer, but who wants to walk around a showroom with that going on?
  • In another case, at another showroom, a customer came in with an appointment and told the receptionist that he was there to see his salesman about an in-progress job. After a brief call, she said, “He’s not answering.” And that seemed to be the end of it. They stared at each other for a few moments before he asked if anyone else could help him. Upon hearing that no one was available, he left. (I wonder how the project turned out.)

In both cases, I would imagine that the owner/manager would be furious if they knew this sort of thing was going on, but just because the issue isn’t being addressed, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. (And as a reporter, it just isn’t appropriate for me to deputize myself and tell the owner what I saw. At least that’s what they taught me in journalism school.)

These situations are by no means catastrophic, and again, they are certainly the exception as opposed to the norm, but since I haven’t seen this sort of thing since the glory days of 2006, so I wanted to remind the owners and managers out there that their “weakest link” is the person not on board with the concept of quality, service and positioning of stone as a premier building product. Hopefully, you don’t have one.