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Customer service is battleground in highly competitive market

WASHINGTON, DC -JUNE 18: Photos for the Value Added column about brothers Tom (left) and John Hughes are owners of six D.C. area Haagen Dazs ice-cream shops. The two are from New Orleans arriving here 16 years ago and have built a successful business. Photos were taken on June 18, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Fri Jun 18 15:15:02 2010
WASHINGTON, DC -JUNE 18: Photos for the Value Added column about brothers Tom (left) and John Hughes are owners of six D.C. area Haagen Dazs ice-cream shops. The two are from New Orleans arriving here 16 years ago and have built a successful business. Photos were taken on June 18, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Fri Jun 18 15:15:02 2010 (Marvin Joseph - Washington Post)

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By Thomas Heath
Monday, June 21, 2010

A few days ago, I sat down for a video interview with Tony Hsieh, the 35-year-old chief executive of Zappos.com and author of the new book "Delivering Happiness," to get his take on how he made his Las Vegas-based online shoe company into a customer- service juggernaut.

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What came through in the interview is how much customer service is part of the Zappos.com culture, in which employees stay on phone calls for up to an hour, talking customers through their purchases or returns. Everyone, from executives on down, spends half of the company's four-week training program taking customer calls.

"We believe that customer service shouldn't just be a department; it should be the entire company and ingrained in our culture," said Hsieh (pronounced "shay"), who sold Zappos.com to Amazon.com for $1.2 billion last year.

Two days after visiting with Hsieh, I was interviewing Tom and John Hughes, two Louisiana-born brothers who run a chainlet of six Haagen-Dazs ice cream shops around Washington.

We were barely into the interview, when the Hugheses (Tom is 37; John is 40) emphasized how service is the battleground where they win or lose customers in the highly competitive dessert market.

"It's about knowing how to make ice cream sodas. Knowing how to scoop. Letting people sample as much as they want. Greeting them as soon as they walk into the store," said Tom. "Customers are coming in to treat themselves. You want to make them happy. Getting the product into their mouth is key."

The Hughes brothers better be good. There's a Starbucks next door, a Ben & Jerry's across the street and Baked & Wired bakery down the street.

When I caught up with them, they were clad in black Haagen-Dazs T-shirts and bemoaning a new, unprofitable Annapolis store that needed fixing. They are determined not to lose what they have worked hard to earn: ownership of a profitable business.

They started in New Orleans, where their mom bartends at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, their brother cleans jets and their sister works at one of the airport's Haagen-Dazs stores. Their dad was a painter for Shell Oil.

John and Tom started in 1989 at the airport Haagen-Dazs as well, earning about $3.50 an hour scooping ice cream. They worked their way up to store managers, earning the trust and respect of the owners -- Jerry and Francine Siegel -- who owned eight Haagen-Dazs stores before Hurricane Katrina hit.

After an associate urged the Siegels to start a Haagen-Dazs at Union Station in Washington, they asked the brothers if they would be interested in running it. They arrived in October 1994, motoring to work in their U-Haul rental and living for a couple of weeks in a Southeast Washington motel before finding more permanent accommodations in Northern Virginia.

The Siegels agreed to pay the capital costs to open the store; they also gave the Hughes brothers 49 percent ownership in return for running the Union Station store for six years. The brothers each were paid a salary of $25,000 a year.


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