From Fudge to Financial Aid: Customer Service is Key

In the northernmost city in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the most well-known and popular product for tourists is fudge. From plain chocolate fudge to more unique flavors, such as cookies and cream, Mackinaw City has tons of options that appeal to and draw in tourists all year round. But why fudge?
The Straits of Mackinac were originally a trading hub for resources such as fish and fur, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this area was reinventing itself into a popular tourist destination. Candy makers took advantage of this and before long fudge was the sought after product in the area.

Fast forward more than a hundred years to the fall of 2002 when a young college student began working his first summer at Marshall’s Fudge in Mackinaw City. That college student was me, of course, and I had no idea what this “summer job” would do for my personal and professional development.

First, I learned the history. I was working at Marshall’s Fudge, Mackinaw City’s oldest fudge shop. It originated on Mackinac Island and at one time had as many as six stores in the area. Marshall’s, a family business, was created by Jim Marshall in 1923. The business grew and Jim, his wife (Oradelle), and his son (Dean) continued growing their operations. As of the early 2000s, Marshall’s operates one main store in Mackinaw City and also ships fudge and candies worldwide for mail and Internet orders. Dean, who had taken over the business from his father, Jim, passed on the business to his daughter and son-in-law who still own and operate it today. Their teenage daughter also works in the store, just as Dean did for his father when he was that age.

From 2002 – 2006, I worked every summer from May – August in Marshall’s Fudge and learned from Dean while he was passing on the business to his kids. I sold fudge and all sorts of sweet treats, I scooped (and ate) more ice cream than one could ever imagine, I learned to make fancy coffee drinks, and I also got to help make certain things, such as caramel corn, almond bark, and caramel apples. (The secret fudge recipe and process was reserved for only the candy makers, who were either part of the Marshall family, or another individual who had been working there for more than 25 years at the time.) But the most impactful thing I did was customer service. I talked to customers. I listened to customers. We talked about the Mackinac Bridge, the weather, their kids, their upbringing, and everything in between. Best of all, this was encouraged. Dean (Mr. Marshall) always wanted us to build relationships with customers, as he was confident this would give them an experience as good as the fudge itself and encourage them to be lifelong customers. He was absolutely right.

Some of the incredibly valuable lessons that I learned while at this summer job are:

Treat others on your team like family.
This was more than just a job – it was a family for me in the summers I was there. As an 18 year old my first summer there, I was invited to multiple “family” dinners and outings, and in general I was treated like family. I felt appreciated and it was clearly conveyed that I was a valuable member of the team. I even celebrated my 21st birthday with the Marshall family. (I won’t go into those details!)

Believe in the product.
“Taste the difference.” Dean and his wife, Jeannie, would say this all the time. They wanted customers to know they were confident that their product was the best and that they weren’t afraid to say so. Specifically, over the years, they had to compete with dozens of other competing stores, even though the other stores had different recipes and often a more appealing price tag. Dean would often say to us, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” I know he didn’t create this saying, but it resonated with me and stuck with me all these years. He knew what we were selling might be more expensive, but he could justify it. He believed in it and stood by his product.

Customer service is key.
Like I mentioned before, even if someone was just coming in the store to look around, we were expected to treat them like a close friend – and we did. In these cases, I don’t even think it was the product that was selling the customers. Instead, they made a connection. They remembered us. They remembered me, the guy that told them where my favorite restaurant in town was. Or they remembered that my co-worker was from Poland and they loved talking to her about her time working in Mackinaw City for the summer. In these moments, it was simply friendly human interaction and it wasn’t about the fudge. But ultimately, Dean was right. It did lock them in as a customer.

It’s now 2018, and even after my last full summer in 2006 when I finished college, I have continued to go back every summer for about a week and “work” for fun. Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I take vacation to go work about 40 hours for a week, but to me, it’s a passion. I recharge my customer service skills and am reminded how important it is for me to demonstrate these same customer service principles in my role with financial aid at Michigan Technological University.

Just as Dean and his family did for me, I view my team as a family. I’m very privileged to work with such a fine group of people in my office at Michigan Tech, and I strive to make them feel as great as they are. I fully believe that if you take care of your team, they will take care of business. In addition, I am fully confident in our product and I’m not afraid to be realistic about it. Yes, I tell folks that a Michigan Tech education is expensive and that it’s a significant investment. But I also can back that up with the return on investment, including the average starting salaries, an extremely low loan default rate, etc. I know our students are getting what they pay for. Finally, customer service in financial aid is the foundation of what we do. When dealing with financial aid and the cost of an education, this can cause much anxiety and emotion for many families. We may not always have the desired solutions or answers for students and their families, but what we can do and strive to do is listen, talk, and demonstrate compassion and empathy. It is through this confidence in our education and our positive customer service that we feel we can develop affinity for Michigan Tech and help make these students lifelong members of the Husky family.

About two years ago when I was doing my summer week in the fudge shop, I saw three men curiously walk into our store. One of them was wearing a Michigan Tech baseball cap, so I instantly knew I had to engage. I quickly walked over on my side of the counter, said “Go Huskies!,” and proceeded to explain to them what I do at Michigan Tech and why I’m here in Mackinaw City in this fudge shop. Their faces quickly turned to smiles when they realized another Husky was here with them. It turned out they were from India, had just graduated from Michigan Tech, and were taking a little trip before they began their careers. We talked for about 5-10 minutes before they left. To be honest, I have no idea if they bought anything from our store or not. And to be honest, none of us cared. Those recent alumni and I had a good time chatting, and I’d be willing to bet that if/when they return to Mackinaw City, they will return to Marshall’s Fudge because they made a connection there and felt welcome. This feeling, this relationship, and the personal connection is what made Marshall’s Fudge special even more than the superior recipe.

I’ve worked at Michigan Tech for nine years now and I know the same holds true here. We have a superior education, but we also have amazing faculty and staff who believe in what we do and demonstrate a passion for helping students. I love making connections with students, families, and alumni and doing whatever I can to help.

If you happen to stop in Mackinaw City in early July, stop in Marshall’s Fudge and look for me. I’ll be wearing a funny looking paper hat and I’d love to chat with you and share Michigan Tech stories. Oh yeah, I almost forgot… We sell fudge too.

Because even I needed a reminder when writing this blog, more information about the history of the Straits of Mackinac and Marshall’s Fudge can be found at http://marshallsfudge.com/history/.