Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How two Faribault businesses made me smile with great customer service May 2, 2018

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. This is one of my favorite images of a small town local business. I took this photo in August 2011. Lerberg’s Foods is still in business.


I VALUE GREAT CUSTOMER service. It can be the deciding factor in whether I patronize a business. If I have a bad experience, I’ll think twice about returning. If I have a great experience, you bet I’ll give that business my business.

Now more than ever, customer service holds significant value along our main streets. It is one way local businesses can compete with online shopping. Not that that is a personal concern for me; I seldom shop online. But most people do. So our local shopkeepers need to go that extra mile to create a welcoming experience that meets customers’ needs.

What comprises great customer service? For me, it starts with a smile. The minute I walk in the door, I should be greeted, valued. I don’t need a clerk or store owner who hovers, but I appreciate someone who is subtly attentive. Help me if I appear overwhelmed, uncertain or can’t seem to find whatever. Listen. Offer choices. Answer questions. And then listen some more. Or leave me alone if I’m sending body language signals that I’d rather be left to browse.

I expect it’s not always easy to determine how to best serve a customer. But a shopkeeper can’t go wrong by simply being nice. And helpful.



I cite two recent examples from my community of Faribault where two grocery store employees showed exceptional customer service. Both on the same day. While at Hy-Vee, I was approached by an employee who apparently noticed me filtering for too long through clamshells of strawberries special-priced at $1.28/pound. I couldn’t find any berries that weren’t over-ripe and/or rotting. Even at a bargain, I won’t pay for bad produce and dislike when a grocer tries to sell food that should be tossed.

But this employee decided he wanted a satisfied customer. He offered to go to the back storeroom and find a pack of acceptable berries. Two if I wanted two, although I pointed out the “Limit one to a customer” sign. He would bring two, he said. I waited until he returned. With only one pack. But that was OK. He also promised to have those over-ripe berries cleared from the shelves.

At my next grocery store stop, I experienced exceptional customer service in the bakery department of Fareway Meat & Grocery. I was on a mission to find a smiley face cookie for my two-year-old granddaughter. Typically those cookies are sold at Hy-Vee. But on this Saturday they weren’t immediately available. I didn’t have time to wait an hour so headed to Fareway hoping for the coveted cookie.



I found smiley face cookies, six to a package. But I didn’t want six. I wanted one. Perhaps, I thought, I could buy a single cookie from the pick-your-own selections. Turns out the cookies aren’t sold individually. I explained my dilemma to the baker, how I had hoped to buy one cookie for Izzy for her second birthday because her mama loved smiley face cookies when she was a little girl. The baker smiled, then told me to pull a package from the shelves. I could have one, she said. At no charge.

You can bet my mouth curved as wide as the blue smile on that cookie. My joy in that simple gesture of kindness shone as bright as the yellow frosting. Granted, giving away that cookie didn’t cost Fareway much money. But it was priceless in terms of exceptional customer service.

That’s what I’m talking about as we celebrate Small Business Month in Minnesota during May and National Small Business Week from now until May 5. Hy-Vee and Fareway may not classify as small businesses. But two employees at their Faribault stores exemplified outstanding customer service to me. And that, my friends, is how Main Street can compete in today’s global online marketplace.

TELL ME: What’s your definition of great customer service? Give me an example. Do you shop local or mostly online?


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My in-house handyman rocks & so does Faribault Ace Hardware January 11, 2013

OH, MY DARLING, knock three times on the ceiling if you want me, twice on the pipes if the answer is no…

If you were a teen of the 70s, like me, you may remember that popular song by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I always connect “Knock Three Times” to a slumber party in the basement of my friend Marla’s house. Don’t ask because I really don’t remember details. I assume we were pounding the ceiling and/or pipes as that tune rocked out on the radio.

The other night it was my husband knocking thrice on the ceiling or pipes as he signaled for me to head to the basement with my camera. He had just finished vacuuming around the non-operating water heater and was ready for me to photograph him in handyman action. His idea, not mine.

So my Canon and I rocked our way down the basement stairs while I belted out the only line I remember from “Knock Three Times.”

Tools and light are in place to replace the thermo couple control on the water heater.

Tools and light are in place to replace the thermocouple on the water heater.

Once inside the cramped utility room, I wondered how the heck I was going to photograph anything except Randy’s behind as he crouched low to the floor to replace the thermocouple on our just shy of six years old water heater. As you can see, I didn’t manage to snap much in the deep dark depths.

But what I gained was hot water again and the reassurance that my spouse is capable of repairing nearly anything in our house.

I hate this brown sink. But, hey, at least I have hot water again flowing from my leaky faucet.

I hate this brown sink. But, hey, at least I have hot water again flowing from my leaky faucet.

Say, about that hole in the dining room wall and the leaky kitchen faucet and the…

Oops, I nearly forgot to tell you this, and it’s an important part of the story. We bought our water heater in March 2007 at our local Faribault Ace Hardware. When Randy stopped by after work  to inquire about the warranty replacement part, the helpful Ace guy found the right piece and then told Randy to bring in the defective part and he’d get his money back. He didn’t even ask for a proof of purchase from six years ago. How’s that for great customer service?

We agreed that we likely would not have experienced the same ease in acquiring a replacement part under warranty had we purchased our water heater at an out-of-town Big Box retailer. Excellent customer service is the main reason we shop local as much as possible.

HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED similar outstanding customer service at a family-owned business? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Expecting better customer service December 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:55 AM
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EVERY FOUR TO SIX WEEKS, my husband and I make a major grocery shopping trip with a divide and conquer plan. It’s easier that way.

With two lists and two carts, we work the store. He handles most of the meat and fruit selection, the snack aisle and dairy products. I take the rest. The tag team approach gets us in and out of the store faster. Less time in the store, less money spent.

Wednesday evening, however, after all 68 items had been scanned, my husband slid a gift card through the payment system and our plan disintegrated. The computer locked up. We wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

I realize these things happen. But the manager, rather than deal with the situation in a calm, professional manner, became visibly and verbally flustered. His agitation only added to my frustration.

I didn’t need to hear that this lock-up has happened previously on this computer with gift cards. Fix the darned thing then, alright.

While we stood there, the check-out clerk and two other employees moved, unbagged, rescanned and repacked all 68 items at an adjacent check-out lane.

Meanwhile, the manager directed other shoppers away from the “bad” lane and simultaneously paged for assistance. He finally realized that flicking off the lane light would effectively steer shoppers away from the malfunctioning computer.

When the final grocery bill of $118.02 was rung up for the second time, I expected perhaps a discount or a gift card as a good will expression of apology. That didn’t happen. We were simply reminded, for about the umpteenth time, that this problem has previously occurred and that, had we waited for the frozen computer to be fixed, we would have stood there at least 10 minutes.

Like we weren’t anyway. Waiting for more than 10 minutes.

Let’s all repeat these two words together umpteen times: “Good customer service.”

SHOULD THE MANAGER have responded differently? Tell me about an experience with customer service–good, bad or otherwise. Just keep your comments family-friendly and libel-free.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Shopping local: service sells December 5, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 1:33 PM
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A candy shop in the 200 block of Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.


Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it?

I’d like to answer, “Yes, I only patronize the Central Avenue mom and pop businesses in downtown Faribault and never set foot inside a big-box retailer.” But I would be lying.

I do shop at places like Walmart in Faribault and occasionally at other big-box stores 15 miles away.

However, I don’t run up to the Burnsville Center a half hour north on Interstate 35 except to shop at the next door National Camera Exchange.

That leads me to a little anecdote. Late Saturday morning my 17-year-old told me he was driving to Menards to purchase a sheet of plywood and other materials for a high school science team project. I put the kibosh on that, advising him to wait until his dad arrived home from ringing the Salvation Army bell. I thought perhaps my husband had materials in the garage that could be used to build a car ramp. (He didn’t.)

I asked my son why he couldn’t just buy his materials at a Faribault lumber yard, thus saving time and a 30-mile round trip. Students were apparently told they could get a better deal at the out-of-town big-box store.

That’s probably true if you just walk in and purchase materials. But, I wondered whether the local lumber yard had been approached by a teacher and offered the opportunity to price match.

By the time my husband arrived home, the local lumber yard was closed and there was no option except to go out of town.

A small-town lumber yard in nearby Janesville, not to be confused with the Lamperts referenced in this post.

Last year, when we were planning to replace five windows, two front doors and the siding on the front of our house, we briefly toyed with the idea of going to a big-box retailer. Instead, we bought from a Faribault lumber yard. Yes, we paid more for product. But the personal service extended to us far exceeded anything I’ve ever experienced through a big-box retailer. When we had a problem, John from Lamperts responded and solved the issue. He kept tabs on our project and was always there to answer questions and offer advice.

Service sells me on buying local. Ace Hardware in downtown Faribault is a stellar example of customer service. Walk in the door there and an attentive employee immediately greets you, asks if you need help, leads you to the merchandise and answers any questions. The place is always busy and it’s not because prices are lower. It’s the service. And the free popcorn is a nice small-town touch, too.

Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a family-owned shoe store along Central Avenue in Faribault.

Several blocks away, you’ll experience equally great service at Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a third-generation family-owned shoe store. The folks there will measure your feet and assure you get a perfect fit. Have special needs? Burkhartzmeyer has specialists on staff to assist. Service, friendliness, care and quality product sell this shoe store to me and so many others. And the shoebox tied with cotton string and a sucker attached is a nice small-town touch, too.

During the warmer months, I like to shop local for fresh produce at the farmers’ market,Twiehoff Gardens and Nursery, and Trump’s Orchards. Again, the friendly service and fresh, quality products sell themselves. The advice on baking squash or on choosing just the right apples for crisp are nice small-town touches, too.

Bottom line, service sells Main Street.

That all said, I, like most of you, live on a tight budget. Cost matters to me. But oftentimes, so does service.

DO YOU SHOP LOCAL? Why or why not? What would entice you to shop local more often?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The Andersen Window Guy earns five stars March 2, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:04 AM
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This is one of two window latches that needed repair.

FOR MORE THAN A WEEK, I’d dreaded the arrival of The Andersen Window Guy.

I had resigned myself to the fact that he would likely gouge/wreck/scrape/ruin the wood on two newly-installed Andersen windows while repairing two broken latches. That would be wood that I had laboriously stained and varnished. I had no desire to stain and varnish more window trim.

So…, when The Andersen Window Guy pulled up with his pick-up truck and trailer Tuesday morning, I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the inevitable.

I should preface this by saying he scored brownie points by arriving several minutes before our 8 a.m. appointment, by removing his shoes upon entering my kitchen and by shaking my hand in a professional greeting. We were off to a good start. I always appreciate respectful workmen who show up when they say they’ll be here.

Then I led him to the windows, hesitated and asked, “Can you fix the windows without wrecking the wood?”

“I’m going to try,” he said.

That gave me hope. But just to emphasize my point, I told him that I had worked long and hard staining and varnishing. Then I walked away.

I feared the wood trim that I stained and then varnished three times would be damaged during the repair.

I, oh, so wanted to see how his work was progressing. But I let him be and settled into my writing projects for the day.

In less time than I could write a blog post, he had finished his work—without damaging or removing a single piece of wood trim.

I told him exactly how happy he had made me. Very, very happy.

He then offered to install the window hardware on all five windows. I accepted since that would be one less task for my husband.

And when I asked for advice on how to remove silicone from my new picture window (inadvertently smudged on by a carpenter), he offered to stop by the next time he’s in town and complete that task too.

Honestly, I could not have asked for a more courteous, helpful, respectful window rep.

He even took the new, but slashed, Andersen window screen leaning against my kitchen counter. My husband discovered the torn screen on Sunday when he was putting the new screens in place.

Unfortunately, I failed to ask The Andersen Window Guy about quality issues with the company’s window treatments. OK, you caught me. As far as I know, Andersen does not manufacture shades, blinds or drapes. But for the past several weeks, while we’ve shopped for window treatments, we’ve placed Andersen window cardboard over our windows. On several occasions, however, we’ve experienced product failure—cardboard thudding onto the living room floor in the middle of the night and cardboard nearly hitting my head as I slept.

A temporary Andersen cardboard treatment on our bedroom window.

I guess I can’t expect The Andersen Window Guy to fix everything. But he did a superb job of fixing what he could fix, and the newly-installed window latch covers now hold our bedroom window treatments in place.

I give him ***** for great customer service.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Great customer service at Sherwin Williams February 7, 2011

THE MANAGER OF SHERWIN WILLIAMS in Faribault just called.

He was curious about issues we had with the Cashmere paint we purchased this weekend at his store. (See my February 6 “Paint problems” post.)

Josh explained to me that, in the darker shades, like the “Whole Wheat” we chose, the colors don’t mix as well into the thinner Cashmere paint. Flecks of color were floating on the surface of the paint, even after a return trip to the paint store for extensive shaking.

Had we poured the paint into the paint tray and begun rolling it on the walls, it should have been just fine, Josh said. He knows from experience. But no one at the store (Josh was not there on Saturday) told us that and no one apparently knew.

So we ended up substituting SuperPaint for Cashmere and the color easily incorporated into that thicker paint.

While I love the new paint color, I don’t like the chalky feel of the SuperPaint, preferring instead the gliding Cashmere.

Josh asked how the whole situation was handled. My husband dealt with the paint issue and, I said, didn’t have any complaints. However, I told the manager I had expected a partial refund or store credit for our hassle.

He wanted to make things right. He wants a happy customer. He stands behind his paint. So Josh offered us a full refund on our two gallons of paint or future credit. I accepted the refund. He thanked me for bringing the issue to the store’s attention, adding that he hopes we will be back. We will.

This, folks, is an example of excellent, hometown customer service. Hats off to Sherwin Williams in Faribault.