Good old-fashioned customer service

Doing what it takes to keep business on-Island.

"We're here to service the customer, not the car," says Angel Figueroa, owner of MV Autoworks and Angel's Auto Body.

Living on an Island presents all kinds of challenges. It’s tough to keep an off-Island doctor’s appointment, for example, on a day when ferry service has been canceled because of inclement weather.

Then there are the inflated prices we pay for basic goods, including food and gas. The retail price of unleaded gasoline on the Vineyard is on a par with Hawaii’s, the most expensive among the 50 states, according to

Finally, our choices are limited. We can’t talk with our feet. Anyone who doubts that competition is the best way to ensure that consumers have access to the widest variety of goods and services at the lowest possible price should spend some time here. Sometimes Islanders have to endure the frustrations of dealing with local merchants and service providers for whom customer service seems like an afterthought.

That’s why it makes such a lasting impression when a local establishment does it right.

“We’re here to service the customer, not the car,” says Angel Figueroa, owner of MV Autoworks and Angel’s Auto Body, the only licensed auto body shop on the Island.

That kind of attitude isn’t in the DNA. It starts at the top, with the owner. Mr. Figueroa sets the standard by instilling a “culture” within the company of how people are to be treated. And while no one enjoys having a car repaired, or footing the bill, “everything we do is geared toward making the experience pleasant,” he says. (Full disclosure: I am a regular customer.)

MV Autoworks offers amenities as well, including a shuttle service for customers who have to leave their car, even for a few hours, to be serviced.

Everyone I know has a horror story about a contractor who doesn’t deliver on his promises (I took mine to small claims court), a tradesman who doesn’t call or show up, an electrician who doesn’t stand behind his work.

Then there are the stores that view the telephone answering machine as a relic rather than a communication device. Is it really asking too much for a business to provide callers — potential customers, by any other name — with a voicemail recording that details limited winter hours of operation? Or to clear the message machine occasionally, so that a customer can leave one of her own?

People pay for service. I know I do. Treat me right, I’m a customer for life. Fool me once, and I go elsewhere.

Market research confirms those instincts. What’s more, customers are much more likely to tell friends about their negative experiences with a business than their positive ones. I know I shared my personal letter of complaint to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts with all my friends.

Customer service buys loyalty. When I purchased a new Weber grill last summer from Shirley’s Hardware, I hadn’t given much thought to disposing of the old one. After assembling and delivering my new gas grill, owner Jesse Steere informed me that Shirley’s would make the old one disappear for a nominal charge. Plus Shirley’s has a contractual agreement with Weber to sell its grills at the lowest advertised price.

“People shouldn’t have to go off-Island to buy a grill,” Steere says. (Substitute a product of your choosing for “grill” in the above sentence.)

With that sort of mentality, it’s not surprising that Shirley’s has been in business since 1973, staffed with familiar faces and knowledgeable personnel who have worked there for as long as 40 years. For someone like me, a visit to Shirley’s is as much about learning how to do something as it is about purchasing the required products and tools.

Another example of service leaving a lasting impression is my interaction with Vineyard Gardens as a relatively new customer.

I had ordered seven yards of mulch to be delivered prior to Memorial Day weekend, the start of my annual vacation week from work dedicated to intensive gardening.

When I began my mulching on the Saturday morning of the long weekend, I realized the mulch was topsoil. One phone call, and Chris Wiley, who founded the nursery with husband Chuck 30 years ago, rectified the error immediately. On what is perhaps the busiest day of the year for garden centers, Chris sent two trucks, one empty to remove the topsoil, the other filled with mulch. If only that kind of attitude were the rule rather than the exception.

Most of us want to support the Island’s local merchants. We understand that elevated rental costs mean charging higher prices. But inflated prices and poor service don’t mix. For a flat annual fee of $99, subscribers to Amazon Prime receive free, two-day (sometimes three) delivery, and returns on every imaginable type of good at competitive prices, backed up by an outstanding customer-support team. Amazon is generally voted the No. 1 Internet retailer in customer service satisfaction surveys (

Whenever the topic of customer service comes up, I always think of Stew Leonard’s, a family-owned grocery-plus (Stew’s has a huge wine and liquor store as well as a garden center) with five stores in Connecticut and New York. Etched in stone at the entrance to Stew’s is its guiding principle, the gold standard of customer service:

“Rule 1: The customer is always right!

Rule 2: If the customer is ever wrong, reread Rule 1.”