Customer Service Tangibles

WestAir defines, evaluates and rewards customer service.

Everyone says it. “Our service differentiates us.” How many times have you heard that from an independent distributor? In San Diego and at 17 other locations throughout California, Arizona and Texas, WestAir Gases & Equipment not only says it, but proves it.

Andy Castiglione Sr. and his wife Sue founded San Diego Welders Supply in 1970 with the belief that providing exceptional customer service would be the foundation for thetrair company’s growth. They worked side by side with the mission of “Customer First” and soon their company gained the reputation of one that cared deeply for their customers and provided quick and reliable service, along with reliable products.

The WestAir facility in Anaheim now runs on solar power, reducing the monthly energy bill by almost $5,000.

Steve Castiglione, second-generation owner and current CEO, explains the company mission: “Total dedication to exceeding customers’ service expectations, with quality and integrity in everything we do.” Castiglione says this high standard of Customer First is ingrained throughout the entire organization and within every WestAir team member.

CEO Steve Castiglione (left) and President Steve Byers are confident employees know and follow the WestAir mission of “Customer First.” They teach it, test it, and reward it.

But like all things that at first glance seem simple and easy to do, there is a process behind WestAir’s commitment to service, and it takes purposeful work.

Customer Service Standards are posted in every store within full view of customers. These standards include the rule that no phone will ring more than three times; a live person will always answer the phone; no one will be kept on hold for more than 20 seconds; customers will be greeted immediately on the display floor; and true same-day deliveries with no qualifications are the norm.

Exceptional customer service is the result of a combination of many little things, like an ice machine for customers to fill up their coolers, for free, on their way to job sites; electric doors that make it easier to bring equipment in and out; complimentary refreshments, including fresh coffee made every hour in every store; an indoor cylinder dock at the Yuma, Arizona, location to provide relief to customers dropping off cylinders in the desert heat. While these seem like small details, customers do notice, and store managers are held accountable.

Every WestAir location has a refreshment bar, and every person who comes into the store is offered juice or coffee. “It’s not about the juice or coffee,” WestAir President Steve Byers says. “It forces the interaction to be more personal. We’re inviting them in as our guest. The first thing you do when someone comes into your home is to ask if they want something to drink. From their first step into our stores, customers notice that the service and culture are noticeably different.”

Byers points to the declining level of service in retail. “We’ve all experienced it, whether buying groceries, popcorn at the movies, or paint at a big box store, often the service shown to the customer is embarrassing, even frightening if you happen to be the owner of that store.” Byers is confident that WestAir’s 200-plus employees carry out the company’s Customer First culture.

“We want to make sure WestAir’s customer service is different, and to make sure it is, we test it,” he says. A secret shopper visits stores every month. While WestAir contracts with an outside service, sometimes a new hire not yet known to colleagues visits the stores. The experience is videotaped and discussed at monthly managers meetings.

Store audits are performed regularly by WestAir’s branch operations manager, who reviews key things such as open orders, back orders, cleanliness, inventory and showrooms. Empty pegs and run outs are a no-no. The income of branch managers is tied to the results of store inspection performance, and employees’ annual performance appraisals consider how they service customers.

Productivity Drivers
With the changing landscape in distribution, WestAir is fine-tuning its focus. Byers says that everything they do is now focused on two things: growth drivers and productivity drivers. “We’re a $70 million business that’s done at about $200 at a time.” That’s a lot of transactions, and many things must be accomplished to get an order out the door. The vision of WestAir’s founder to service the customer at any cost is complemented with technologies and processes to optimize assets and resources.

A continuous improvement team is being set up that will meet monthly to develop ways to improve sales, service and value to customers, and to review the latest technologies in transportation, cylinder filling, maintenance and cost improvements. The company has invested in ultrasonic cylinder testers and an automated picking carousel in its National City warehouse. Microbulk tanks are filled at 20 percent in order to reduce deliveries. A computer system automatically routes deliveries, so if a driver calls in sick, the system removes the driver and redistributes the workload. A barcode cylinder tracking system and automated payment processing are in the works.

Management rides along in trucks or works in stores at least once a quarter. “This is where the rubber meets the road,” Byers say, “and each time management goes into the field, we look for ways to improve daily processes.” He adds, “And we see happy customers.”

A fleet in excess of over 150 vehicles delivers industrial, medical and specialty gases, and hardgoods. Three filling plants are in California, including one that manufactures acetylene. A fourth will open in Texas at the end of 2014. Several high pressure delivery systems capable of field delivery of nitrogen up to 5,000 psi and capable of 360k SCFH provide product at customer worksites.

WestAir recently added a new position: Customer Experience Manager, whose role is to make sure all of WestAir’s retail stores look and feel the same in terms of culture, ranging from similar displays throughout the organization to everyone wearing the same polo shirt. He explains, “As WestAir expands, it will be easy to slip if we don’t continue to focus on our culture.”

One of these customers may be a secret shopper gauging the level of service provided to customers, possibly using a hidden camera to videotape the transaction.

The WestAir Difference
Defining service and executing it has been a hallmark of WestAir for 44 years, and will carry the company into the future as it continues to grow. Now in its third generation, Andy Castiglione, 28, is an area manager for the Los Angeles basin, and Christopher Castiglione, 23, is a store rover and helps train, coach and develop employees in the branch locations.

Steve Byers believes the biggest thing that separates WestAir from others is the sense of urgency throughout the company. “We fulfill small orders and large orders at a moment’s notice and will drive hundreds of miles off our route to make sure our customers have the product they need to get back to work.” Whether it’s a small company just starting up with one cryofreezer and one incubator, or a multinational company with various systems and gases, each is given the same amount of support and service.

Steve Castiglione sums up WestAir’s mission of service: “We feel a great responsibility to be a good provider to our customers. Sometimes the unexpected happens. When our customer comes up against a challenge, that’s when the WestAir difference comes out.”

Every driver knows the WestAir mission and works hard to exceed customers’ expectations.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association