Customer Service Week

As Customer Service Week comes to a close, leave a comment sharing your story on how you connect with your community, your teams, your business partners, or your vendor partners and win a free ‘Amaze Every Customer Every Time’ book!

On October 4th, Gina Schaefer, Ace Hardware store owner and Ace Center For Excellence keynote speaker celebrated Customer Service week with a talk focused on her connections, breaking down silos, tools she uses to integrate learning into her business and how to go the extra mile.

Connect with your Vendor Partners
We go to work every day thinking about our direct connections, have you ever gone a layer or even two layers deeper? Gina started her talk with Associated-Solutions staff by sharing that although they were connected, she had not known who Associated was prior to today. She went on to say the level of service given Ace warehouses by vendors such as Associated ultimately affects her business and when done well, it’s seamless to her.

Connect with your Business Partners
Are you fully using the resources available to you? What can you do individually or as a business to continuously learn? Gina often shares that her trust in her business partner, Ace Hardware is why she utilizes the services and training offered. At this week’s meeting, she shared her team’s learning from implementing customer counts. These counts highlighted the number of footsteps that weren’t being turned into sales. Her teams can now use this learning to implement changes and successfully grow the business.

Connect with your Team
How do go beyond going to work every day and instead live, demonstrate, grow, or develop your core values with your team daily? Just one example of learning from her team and breaking down silos is Gina Schaefer’s story about bringing together various team members to brainstorm on the core values for her 12-store chain. That meeting led to the nine core values by which all the team’s live by. A few examples of how they interact daily are; be a great neighbor, be helpful, create raving fans, be vibrant & enthusiastic, and always grow and share.

Connect with the Community
Think about how you or your business affects your local community. Is it events? fund-raising, jobs? How do you directly or indirectly give back to your community? As ‘A Few Cool Hardware Stores’ grew, they kept finding ways to differentiate and connect with the local community needs. Gina has tirelessly focused on the “Return to Main Street” movement in her own city of Washington, D.C. to promote Shop Local campaigns and community revitalization in urban areas. This has resulted in partnering with many local entrepreneurs and creating a D.C. based program to sell locally made goods from prime shelf space in her 12 stores.

The overarching message on Wednesday was go the extra mile with everyone you interact with. If you’re willing to, soon silos are breaking down and trust grows. No matter how big or small your role is, find ways to connect with and impact your team, your business partners, your vendor partners, and especially your community because they do all impact each other!

Owning the culture and values in your organization

What evokes the human spirit in your organization?

The relationships and behaviors in your organization drive your culture and a strong culture lets your people know they matter. At this June’s keynote and workshop session, Tom Knox, CEO of Westlake Ace taught the importance of never taking your eye off the culture and values in your organization. In his words, if no one owns that role on some level, you’re at risk for no one demonstrating behaviors that reflect the culture or the values. In his organization, he went as far as to assign a manager of culture and values because it was that important. Does the human spirit in your organization have the lift it needs from you?

Are the puzzle pieces of your teams coming together or still trying to find the right fit?

First, define what your business is to your customers internally and externally. Are you customer focused? Are you price driven? Do you strive for operational excellence? Pick one thing to excel at and define the culture and values to reflect your business’s focus. Living the defined culture and values will bring your teams together as one cohesive unit.

What are your people doing when you aren’t looking?

A strong culture lived at all levels of the organization means it happens even when your head is turned. First, ensure your culture is aligned to your personal core values and your organization’s core values. Communicate these often to all your employees and keep expectations around these values high. If your organization doesn’t currently have an owner for your core values, assign someone.
A great exercise to try right now is to write down your own core values. Then write down your organization’s core values. Finally, ask your team members what your organization’s core values are.
Evaluate the gaps and close them because your culture defines both your business and the behaviors of your teams, even when you aren’t looking.
We’d love to hear from you! Share your thoughts on how to defend the culture in your business.

Celebrate small business week, implement a small businesses mindset and revive your day to day!

Small businesses aren’t cookie cutters. They require unique, out of the box thinking to thrive in this online, big box world we live in. As small business week ends, keep that unique spirit alive with your teams big or small. Think like a small business. Ask for unique perspectives from yourself and your teams. It’s true, even from the 3,000 th cubical on the 20th floor, it’s possible to bring the small business ideology to day to day tasks!

How to bring small business thinking to any situation:

  1. Identify a routine task, process or project
  2. Ask yourself how many unique perspectives you have around you
    1. HINT: add up all the people involved directly and indirectly
  3. Ask yourself if you’ve ever challenged the team for new ideas
    1. Think also about how many new ideas you’ve ever agreed to or implemented
    2. HINT: The impact of your answer to a. may require more work on your part to open the team up to this new approach. Ask yourself if you’ve ever challenged the team for new ideas
  4.  Ask the team for new ideas
    1. Accept the new ideas
    2. HINT: Accepting the new ideas will drive more participation and more unique ideas
  5.  New ideas will bring a unique brand and excitement to the group
  6. Unique branding and excitement will lead to engagement and fuel further new ideas

Think about your role in your business. Are you going about the tasks or excited? If you are more task driven and less energized, champion a new way of thinking. At Ace, we like to act local and think global.  It’s how David beat Goliath, and how our little guy entrepreneurs win out over big box stores and online retailing. We all know there is great importance in operational efficiencies, best practices and procedures; just don’t get lost in them. Think like a small business and try applying a unique perspective to liven up a routine task.

The Ace Center For Excellence celebrates the continued success of Ace’s small businesses. Within the larger efficiencies of our cooperative, the heart of the small business beats strong! We’d love to hear from you! Tell us about a time you’ve thought like a small business to make everyday tasks unique!

April 2017 marks The Ace Center For Excellence 2 Year Anniversary

How we got there

As we reflect on the last two years, we can’t help but also proudly reflect on Ace’s many successes, especially in sales and customer satisfaction. Most recently we received top marks in the 2017 Temkin Experience Rating and Top 10 in the January publication of the Entrepreneur Magazine Top 500. Ace also recently celebrated the opening of its 5000 store.

Our strategy

We all realize that success requires learning from the past and creating strategies for the future. Rather than sit back and revel in our victories, the Ace team continues to strategize against the soaring success of online retailing by bringing to life our unique weapons in the world; an irrational pursuit of service, quality and convenience.

We’d like to hear from you about the 2017 successes or challenges your organization faces!  The first five comments (made below) we receive will receive a free
Amaze Every Customer Every Time book.

What we do

With each tailored Ace Center For Excellence event, our speakers talk from success not about success and bring to life Ace Hardware’s culture of customer service. As we move into year three, our keynote speakers and workshop facilitators are poised to help you morph, modify and translate your business. Our goal is to help galvanize your teams to take up your weapon in the world and protect your brand promise.

Read some of the most recent client feedback.

Our 2017 team includes:

  • John Venhuizen, President & CEO, Ace Hardware Corporation
  • John Surane, Executive VP of Merchandising, Retail Operations, Business to Business, and Wholesale Holdings
  • Kane Calamari, VP, Human Resources, Organizational Development, Communications, Ace Foundation and Customer Care
  • Tom Knox, President and CEO, Westlake Ace Hardware
  • Gina Schaefer, Founder and CEO of 11 Ace Hardware stores
  • Art Friedman, Managing Director of Retail Operations for 21 store Ace Hardware chain and International Trainer
  • Lou Manfredini, Ace Hardware’s resident Home Expert and Ace Store Owner

The Ace Center For Excellence is positioned to help. Contact the Ace Center For Excellence or refer a business partner to us today.

Taking an idea to the next level.


When you have an idea that’s gained traction – be it a business, product, or a vision for our team. How have you taken that idea to the next level?

  1. Thinking even bigger (stronger, broader, faster, cheaper).
  2. Thinking like a small business (better, focused, personalized, differentiated).

Thinking Even Bigger

The saying goes, “March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb.” It suggests the attitude that sometimes drives entrepreneurs, team leaders and executives in pursuit of a big idea – roaring in, like a lion. If you recognized this approach, is it working? Are you celebrating long term, repeatable success? Is the culture of your organization strong? If positive answers to these questions aren’t readily available, try thinking smaller.

Thinking like a small business

The second approach is one that we hear most often from our Ace Center for Excellence speakers and clients as they’ve worked to unite members around a national brand, merge corporate cultures or strive to compete with larger companies. Here are a few examples of strategies they’ve used:

  • Celebrate uniqueness. If you’re selling a product or service, find what you can do that bigger, stronger competitors can’t, and pursue it. If you’re motivating a team to move in a common direction, let people and teams contribute their own unique skills and personalities.
  • Put the “unity” in “community. Create shared values for your team, especially if they encourage community service. Local businesses are amazing in their shared passion for serving their local community. As teams serve, it helps them connect with each other and their customer.
  • Tell your stories. When striving to provide a consistent customer experience, gather stories about how individuals delivered service with something extra. Then, find a way to share those stories with your members, owners, dealers or team members.

See what we’ve learned from our clients and speakers.

Five Questions to Help Share Your Vision

Many of the teams, associations and companies the Ace Center for Excellence speakers and workshop leaders collaborate with have reached a milestone on their path toward a future vision – the challenge of winning some hearts and minds.

Creating opportunities to learn from outside experience can help you meet the challenge. This helps reinforce leaders’ messages that, “it can be done,” with examples of how, “it has been done.” We’ve noticed clients who seem to have the most alignment around their vision, start collaborating with our keynote speakers or workshop leaders using a list of questions like this:
1. How does a neighborhood Ace Hardware store survive with such big competitors?
2. What examples can you share to help our team feel confident we’ll reach our goal?
3. Our members are proud of their local brand. How do Ace retailers maintain their local identity, while upholding the national brand standards?
4. How do culture and values contribute to performance?
5. Can you share examples of amazing customer service?

As you roll out a vision for your team, gather some outside perspectives. Find examples of other organizations or companies who were on a similar path. When teams learn what is possible, how it’s been done, and how they can contribute, they can start seeing eye-to-eye.

Let’s think about…your purpose

As 2017 begins, you’re likely to face big challenges. You could be toe-to-toe with bigger, faster competitors, or changing consumer perceptions and buying habits. Maybe you’re working to stand out among the myriad of other choices customers or talented job candidates have.

To meet the challenge, business demands that you give your consumer what they want and most people want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

That’s where your business purpose comes in.

Of course, in business we keep score with money. But a meaningful business purpose can offer that “something bigger” your customers, and your team, are looking for.

Take Ace Hardware’s business purpose as an example. Our customers know us as the helpful place. That means our business isn’t about selling hardware. It’s about serving others.

Here’s how that was demonstrated by a store in Chattanooga, TN:

When the community was hit by a massive snowstorm, Steve Kelly, Director of Store Operations made sure all his stores stayed open. In fact, Steve, his store managers and associates spent the night in the stores to be ready when people in the community needed supplies to deal with the snow clearing and power outages. As he put it, it was about “being there for the community in a time of need.

While some may argue that a servant heart is the enemy of a profitable endeavor, we’d argue it’s about being part of something bigger.

With the New Year underway, take a fresh look ask yourself “What do we stand for beyond making money?”

Celebrate Customer Service Week with Helpful Tips

In celebration of National Customer Service Week, Oct. 3-7, we’re sharing tips that Ace Hardware associates use to start conversations, build lasting relationships and handle difficult conversations:

  1. Seize the Moment. Never switch onto autopilot when you’re working with a customer. Always ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing right now going to make this customer want to come back?”
  2. Ask Open-Ended Questions.Asking, “Can I help you?” often invites a “no” answer. To develop customer relationships, start a conversation with questions like “What can I help you find?” or “How can I help you?”
  3. Ask the Extra Question.Many times, an Ace customer may come in asking for a specific part. A perfect way for associates to open up dialogue is to ask, “Out of curiosity, what are you using it for?” Extra questions, that show your interest in a customer, can reveal an opportunity to help them find an alternate product that works better for them and builds trust that leads to a longer term relationship.
  4. The Customer is Not Always Right, but…even when a customer is wrong, they’re still your customer. Let them be wrong with the dignity and respect they deserve. Give them the benefit of the doubt, avoid arguing or debating and try to identify what the problem really is.
  5. Master the Art of Recovery. Problems or complaints are opportunities in disguise. Instead of arguing about who’s right or wrong, work to renew your customer’s confidence in you with four steps: Apologize; Take action with an acceptable temporary solution; Make a promise to resolve the problem; Keep your promise.

It’s really about helping your customers get what they want, instead of trying to get what you want. When your focus is on building relationships, instead of conducting transactions, you’ll win customers for life.

Creating Happy Customers on a $5 Budget

Legendary customer service stories usually have one thing in common – an engaged employee who was empowered to deliver amazing customer service.

One great tactic is the $5 Lifeboat. The idea empowers an associate to spend up to five dollars to solve a problem without prior approval (use whatever dollar increment is reasonable in your organization).

In ‘Amaze Every Customer Every Time,’ author Shep Hyken describes how one store owner demonstrated the idea:

An Ace Hardware customer was letting a cashier know how disappointed he was that his rebate checks were taking so long to arrive. The store owner overheard, opened the register and handed the customer cash to cover the two five dollar rebates.

“If the rebate check comes in, and you want to swing by the store and give us back the ten dollars, that would be fine,” he said.

After that, the pleasantly surprised customer made a point of finding the owner and saying hello every time he came into the store. The store had a customer for life.

To create a similar policy in your workplace, think about what decisions you could empower your team to make on their own. How does the cost of those decisions compare to the value of creating lifetime customers? Set clear guidelines, and make sure your team understands the value of your customers. Then, share examples that illustrate the spirit of the policy. You’ll  empower your team to make decisions that build better relationships.

Note to Leaders: Keep the Ideas Coming

Great leaders know, the next big idea could come from anywhere in an organization. You can support an innovative, idea-friendly working culture, but how can you be sure you’re not missing the next great idea when you can’t be everywhere in your organization? Here are three ways:

  1. Never criticize an idea in a public setting. EVER. The number of ideas your organization gets from employees depends on the way management responds to mediocre ideas.
  2. Make it easy and informal to share. Many retail stores and restaurants use a daily huddle to collect ideas, share solutions and boost morale. How would a “team huddle” or “Lunch with the Boss” event look in your organization?
  3. Don’t take credit for someone else’s breakthrough. Recognize the ideas …and where they came from.