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It’s Just Business – American Retail Supply owner Keith Lee

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“Do what you do so well that people can’t help telling others about you.” – Walt Disney

Keith Lee is the embodiment of customer service. I say this because I have enlisted the help of Keith and his company, American Retail Supply, for my own businesses and from the moment of first interaction I realized the outstanding ways Keith and his whole team treat their customers. Anyone looking for someone retail-wise to handle their business needn’t to go any further than American Retail Supply in Kent.

American Retail Supply provides regional retail chains and independent retailers everything they need to run their business such as point-of-sale computer systems, bags, gift wrap boxes, bows and ribbons, the fixtures, shelving, display cases and more.

“Some of our real good customers in this area are McLendon Hardware, Mud Bay, Space Needle, Bartell Drugs – we provide those kinds of stores the things they need to operate the business,” he explained. With warehouses in Denver and Honolulu and home base in Kent, American Retail Supply has secured customers in all 50 states, selling to just under 10,000 customers a year and shipping around 50,000 orders a year. Business leaders, too, have taken note of Keith’s customer service leadership, including “Washington CEO” magazine having named American Retail Supply the best small business to work for in Washington state.

Keith went to work for American Retail Supply in 1978 and in 1981 took over as manager and now he owns the company. He sets an example for how to treat customers that all entrepreneurs should take to heart and the best place to start is to get a copy of his book “The Happy Customer Handbook: 59 Secrets To Creating Happy Customers.” His book is all about how you can’t just say you have great customer service – you have to have specific things you do, specific training for your team that will create an atmosphere of great customer service. Key is placing top-notch customer service among your company’s core values and training your workforce accordingly. Owner Keith himself sets an example for his workers by actively inviting customers to call him directly anytime they may feel they’re receiving sub-par service – and he doesn’t receive many of these call, for good reason.

“Out in the world today, I don’t see very good customer service. It’s amazing how many times you can go into a retail store and never even get a smile from anyone,” Keith said. The reason for this is the cycle of bad service that seems to permeate many retail businesses and at its heart is the fact that working people who haven’t been on the receiving end of great customer service won’t know how to give it if they’ve never seen it modeled. Keith advises owners and managers to set clear expectations and talk to your employees about what it really means to give that exceptional customer service. 

“Most of the time when people get bad customer service or what’s perceived as bad customer service or just let down in any way, what do they do? They just leave and that’s the last thing we want them to do as a business owner,” Keith says. “When we have issues in our company, we first look at the systems in the business and ask how the system let this happen – what systems we have in place that we need to change to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Only after that do we go back and look at individuals and whether we need to re-train them. Sometimes it is an individual but mainly it’s a problem with the system and that’s where we need to change the system.”

He says that the number one secret for customer service for any business is to make sure that your core business values put a huge emphasis on the customer. “For instance, since 1981 when I started managing the company, our core values have been the same – take care of our team members, take care of our customers and be an honorable member of the community. If we take good care of our team members and make sure we have a place where they’re listened to, believed in and are given the opportunity to reach their goals, they will automatically take care of our customers. It comes a lot easier if they know they’re working for a company that has their best interest at heart.”

With around 40 employees, training at American Retail Supply begins with customer service and this topic is re-visited regularly.

“If you really think customer service is critical and as important as I think it is, it needs to be the very first training that your new team member gets,” Keith said. “Using a retail example, often the first training is how to stock a shelf or how to ring up an order whereas what we really recommend is that very first training is all about customer service. We have a DVDs that we’ve created and a program that takes about an hour to go through. Then we give them ‘The Happy Customer Handbook’ and ask them to read it.”

This excerpt from “The Happy Customer Handbook” gives excellent advice for every entrepreneur and business owner, and every employee, who cares about giving great customer service:

“There’s only one boss, and whether a person shines shoes for a living or heads up the biggest corporation in the world, the boss remains the same – the customer. She is the person who pays everyone’s salary and who decides whether a business is going to succeed or fail. She doesn’t care if a business has been around for 100 years. The minute it starts treating her badly or taking her for granted, she’ll put it out of business. The boss – the customer – had bought and will buy everything you will ever have. She has bought all your clothes, your home, your car, pays for your children’s education and your vacation. She pays all of your bills and she pays in exact proportion to the way you treat her. The man who works inside a big office building or plant might think he works for the company that writes his paychecks but he doesn’t. He is working for the person who buys the product at the end of the line. In fact, the customer can fire everybody in the company from the president on down and she can do it simply by spending her money somewhere else. Some of the largest companies that had flourishing businesses a few years ago are no longer in existence. They couldn’t, or didn’t, satisfy the customer. They forgot who the boss really is.”

To order your copy, got to You pay only $2.97 for shipping, and for $1 more you can order Keith’s other book,

“How to Control Your Business and Your Life: Proven Secrets to Creating Highly Productive Teams.”

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