Giving Customers Something to Talk About

October 8, 2013
SPECIAL FEATURES | Close-Ups
      
Giving Back

EXCELLENCE IN COMMUNITY SERVICE

 

Long Life Windows and Doors

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Kris Alexander, owner and general manager of Long Life Windows and Doors, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, knows that it’s human nature to be much more vocal about a bad experience than a good one. “I’m a consumer and, the way I look at it, I’ll be happy about something and I won’t tell a ton of people,” he says, “but if I’m unhappy, it tends to come up in conversation quite a bit.”

  
 For more than 15 years, Long Life owners Kris Alexander (left) and his father, Pat, have made community service an essential component of the business.

In business for nearly 25 years, Long Life’s reputation is its most prized possession. A second-generation, family-run business, the dealer caters to homeowners in the market for high-quality replacement windows and provides precision installation on nearly every product it sells.

The company consistently goes the extra mile to keep customers happy, and its leadership—first father Pat Alexander and now son Kris—considers its community involvement and charitable giving a critical component of its customer service-centric business strategy.

“My dad has always been one of those guys who, for the right type of project and for the right charity, is one of the most charitable guys I know,” Alexander says. “We get an unbelievable amount of people who ask for help and he’s always done a great job of choosing the right people to work with. It’s been the company philosophy for a long time to make the business work and also find a way to help others out.”

About five years ago, the company hit its stride and saw a spike in business—Long Life jumped from doing about 100 jobs per year to about 500 jobs this year.

Alexander notes that Long Life was among the first window companies to have a website in the early years of the Internet revolution and has also been carving a path for itself in social media. “The market has changed drastically over the last couple of years,” he says. “Customers are doing a lot of online research and it’s changed how we do business.”

So Long Life is now breaking its silence on its community service initiatives, and Alexander has decided to make the company’s extensive charitable involvement a part of its story with current and future customers. “We’re proud of the community we’re involved with,” he says. “So for a long time, we have done some unique things that have hopefully allowed our customers to not feel like once we’ve gotten their money, they’re no good to us anymore. We don’t want them to ever feel that way.”

Still, talking about community service is an interesting challenge for companies, as they have to strike the right balance, Alexander adds. While Long Life has not yet found the perfect approach to communicating about its donations and community involvement, social media and its website provide a more casual venue for the discussion. “I haven’t found a way for me to feel totally comfortable promoting it without sounding like we’re pumping our own tires.”

Reputation Matters

  
 For each project it completes, the company donates a portion of its sales to a charity and then sends its customers tax receipts at the end of the year to acknowledge the contribution Long Life made on their behalf.

Long Life sells only one line of windows—a high-end vinyl window produced locally by Vinyltek Windows. “It’s the highest-rated vinyl window on the market,” says Alexander. “It’s made about 30 minutes from our showroom. It’s a niche manufacturer and more of a specialty, custom producer compared to the mass producers.”

Still, even offering one of the best window products on the market, Alexander knows that the key to the referrals that sustain Long Life is highly dependent on the company’s commitment to customer service. “We are, indeed, a service business,” he notes. “It’s not about the product. We’ve always had a very service-oriented business model that allows our guys to offer the best service we can.”

This means that Long Life doesn’t trip over dollars to pick up dimes when it comes to making sure its customers are happy. “You have to maintain your ability to spend a couple of bucks to get your guys out to a site to make sure the customer is totally satisfied,” Alexander says. “It takes a lot to ensure there are no problems. With construction, I wouldn’t lie to you and say there are no issues. But the reason why we don’t have any complaints with the Better Business Bureau is because spending $200 or $300 for a guy to go back to a job site is worth a lot more in the long run.”

“The distinguishing characteristic about Long Life is their reputation for a high level of service and commitment to the neighborhoods they work in,” says Peter Gudewill, owner of Vinyltek Windows. “To this day they do very little advertising. The phone rings from a referral network from 25 years of happy customers.”

Long Life has also always considered charitable giving an essential investment in order to maintain a healthy business, Alexander says. The company has engaged in local efforts, including sponsoring an annual soccer tournament, hosting rescue dogs at the company’s headquarters, and consistently donating to organizations that provide services for orphaned children. For the last 15 years, one of its primary initiatives has been to adopt a charity each year and donate a portion of its sales to support a specific cause. This isn’t the sort of gimmick that a customer must request or take action on; Long Life donates on each and every customer’s behalf. “What we do with our annual charity is send the customers an individual tax receipt for the donations we’ve made on their behalf,” Alexander notes.

The company isn’t interested in the tax benefits; the donations are part of its community service philosophy, Alexander notes. “Depending on the size of the job, customers get a tax receipt of $30 or $50 each,” he explains. “The cover letter to them points out that, while each receipt isn’t a ton of money, collectively we may have given the charity $10,000 or $15,000.”

Last year, Long Life’s donation provided a local organization with enough money to purchase a new bus to transport at-risk youth back and forth to after-school programs.

“Long Life has been a partner and financial supporter of our work in East Vancouver for the last couple years,” says Jonathan Livingstone, East Vancouver area director for Youth Unlimited. “They have come alongside our street life outreach initiative and helped us to acquire a new outreach vehicle as well as been a great advocate for our work in the community.”

The recipients of Long Life’s outreach efforts have seen first-hand that the company is willing to put its money where its mouth is. “We have really valued how personable the team has been, especially Kris Alexander,” Livingstone says. “He has put lots of effort into supporting what we do and has gone above and beyond. Long Life has a real desire to make a difference in the community and backs that up with hard work and quality service.”

The staff gets involved with the annual charity as well, knowing that even the smallest contributions add over time, Alexander says. “We have a change jar in our front office and we all get involved and support it,” he says.

The Buzz

  
 With a recent spike in growth, Long Life Windows and Door is committed to maintaining its customer-centric business model, which includes a strong community service component.

The charity on the receiving end of Long Life’s efforts receives more than just money. The selected organization also benefits from the window dealer’s sphere of influence. “Yearly, we send out information on what the charity is,” Alexander says. “It gives the charity a large database of about 4,000 customers we’ve had through the years. Often, they tell us that they’ve seen an increase in their donations from this.”

When Long Life introduces its annual charity to its customers, the dealer explains what the charity is, how the company plans to support it throughout the year and how the donations will benefit the target audience. “In both the email we send and the receipt we hand over at the end of each job, we’ll tell customers to keep a lookout in the mail in February for their tax receipt,” Alexander says.

Still, Long Life hasn’t made a point to shout its community service from the rooftops. “You have to be careful on how you talk about it because you want to prove that you’re doing it for the right reasons,” Alexander says. “We don’t want to take away from what we’re doing because we are doing it for the right reasons.”

So, Alexander and the Long Life team have turned to more contemporary communications vehicles to share its charitable philosophies. “We really want our charities to be a part of our company story,” he says. “It’s a big part of our story. We want to give back as much as we’re taking, if not more. But it’s hard to do that through your website or through media outlets without bragging—without losing sight of why you’re doing it.”

The conversational tone of social media is an approach that makes more sense to Alexander. “Social media has helped us a lot,” he says. “It allows us to broadcast our activities a little more and get into a conversation with our followers.”

To encourage conversational growth in this arena, Long Life recently conducted a “Like” campaign on Facebook, donating $1 for each “like” it received during a specific span of time to the rescue dog charity it supports. “It gives us a nice way to give back, but also make the customers aware of it,” Alexander notes.

Feedback

With both its customer service mentality and its charitable involvement, the Long Life team rests easy knowing that no feedback is often good feedback. And while the company has impressive responses on HomeService. com—the Canadian equivalent of Angie’s List—Alexander and his team aren’t bothered when they don’t hear back from satisfied customers.

Even the unsolicited tax receipts at the end of the year may land in customers’ mailboxes with little feedback. “Last year, we sent out just over 300 tax receipts and we heard back from five customers or so,” Alexander says. “The idea, though, is that a lot of people wouldn’t pick up the phone to call someone or email somebody. But what I would do is the next time I’m sitting and having dinner with a group of people, I’d say, “You’ll never guess what happened. I just got a tax write-off from my window company.”

Ultimately, if a customer feels good about having done business with Long Life—even months and months after a project is done—then Alexander considers the company’s customer-centric community service approach a success. “At the end of the day, we’re not looking for a pat on the back,” he says. “This is the whole experience. It may be a month or maybe even a year since we’ve done your windows, but we haven’t forgotten that you’re one of our customers.”