Customer service fires up Weber's success

Mr Jim Stephen is the son of Weber founder George Stephen, whom he says was the man who kicked off America's grilling culture back in the early 1950s.
Mr Jim Stephen is the son of Weber founder George Stephen, whom he says was the man who kicked off America's grilling culture back in the early 1950s. ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Even though the grills he makes are top-quality, Weber executive chairman Jim Stephen manages to keep customers coming back for more. Customer service, he explains, does the trick.

In the United States, where Weber is based, 500,000 calls are made to the firm's call centre each year, and 80 per cent of those callers want to know how to cook something or how to make a recipe work - instead of having any issues to raise with the product.

Mr Stephen said: "From the very beginning, we learnt real quickly that we had to demonstrate to people how to cook. Because not everybody knows how to start a barbecue, how to set it up to cook properly, but they want to learn how to do it.

"It's in our best interest to teach them how to do it so they have a good, successful experience."

Weber's call centre is open 362 days a year, and almost everyone in the customer service department is a trained griller who can tackle all kinds of questions on the subject, Mr Stephen said. The firm even keeps a case history file on each caller.

In some countries, grillers have even gone directly to the homes of new customers uncomfortable with grilling to show them how it is done.

That is the level of customer service Weber has promised its customers and the reason why, though its grills have been imported here for years, the Chicago-based firm opened its first store and grill academy to teach classes in Joo Chiat only last month.

Mr Stephen, who was in town for the opening, wanted to make sure the end-to-end infrastructure was in place.

That has involved bringing a good range of accessories and spare parts to Singapore, working with local taste experts to adapt local recipes, like sambal stingray, to Weber grills, and getting Weber's Australia team to train up the staff's grilling techniques.

"I'm excited about our future," Mr Stephen said.

"Every time we grow to a new market, we learn something that we're able to transfer to the next market. For example, we never had a grill academy in the US. It was the Europeans who took our demonstrations and made it a grill academy. We realised that was a better model, and so the grill academy has come here to Asia."

Mr Stephen is the son of Weber founder George Stephen, whom he says was the man who really kicked off America's grilling culture back in the early 1950s.

"In the 1950s, there was no grilling culture in the US. But there were starting to be brick fireplaces - some bricks piled up and a grate on top of that, and a grate underneath, and you cook on it.

"Dad built one of those in his backyard because he was pretty handy, and he was maybe 30 years old. He had a party for all of his friends, he cooked a meal and he burnt everything."

As it happened, the late Mr Stephen worked for a firm that made round-shaped mooring buoys for the Chicago harbours. So he took home a steel buoy, cut it in half, drilled some holes in it, put some legs on it, put grates in it, and started cooking on it.

"People do that sometimes," said Mr Stephen of his father.

"And he came up with the idea to put a lid on it. Once he did that he could control the airflow through it, control the fire and stop the burning, and get into the business of actually cooking.

"That revolutionised grilling in the US - putting the lid on."

As a boy, Mr Stephen would follow his father on store demonstrations and ride his bike to the Weber factory to sweep the floors or help with packaging.

He also picked up welding this way and later led the team that designed a new gas grill which gives customers precise heat control.

Not that Mr Stephen spent his entire career with the company - he had his meanderings.

"I worked in construction building homes, I did a stint acting; Summer stock, Shakespeare Repertoire," he recalled.

"I think I was good, but we'll never know because it's stage acting, so 'poof!' It's gone."

But the grandfather and boating enthusiast is, ultimately, committed to the grill business.

"Cooking, preparing food and bringing people together, it's really a fun thing to do. So of all the jobs you could have, I can't think of anything better.

"In the last 10 years, between US and Europe, revenue growth has been in the double digits every year. For an old barbecue company, that's pretty darn good."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline Customer service fires up Weber's success. Subscribe