ImageAs you may have noticed, I like to complain. And though you've mostly heard me complain about crimes against English, I've done my share of grousing about bad branding, too. Not today.

Today, I'm celebrating two Long Beach, California, institutions, the proprietors and staff of which understand the connection between customer service and branding, between customer loyalty and long-term financial health. One was launched in 1976 a stone's throw from the Pacific; the other in 1934 on the River Clyde.

When Mike Sheldrake opened Polly's Gourmet Coffee on East Second Street in what is now the tony enclave of Belmont Shore, his was "the only place between Brentwood and San Diego with an in-house roaster," as he told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "We were the only espresso bar in Long Beach."

Of course all that changed when Starbucks came along. But Polly's has managed to survive amid the cutthroat competition and thrive. How has Sheldrake pulled this off?

For starters, he hired a marketing consultant to help him navigate "the chain problem." "We doubled our advertising budget and dreamed up a statement that we put on every ad we run: 'Down the street from ordinary,'" he told the Times about one facet of the plan.

This is some good branding, but it's not what will keep me coming back to Polly's; to paraphrase James Carville, it's the customer service, stupid.

Another smart thing Jim Sheldrake did was to institute a 35-hour training program and 110-question test designed to elevate Polly's customer service beyond what you'll get from your average barista. "It's difficult and expensive to assemble and keep a good staff," he informed the OC Weekly. "But it's worth it. Their performance is light-years ahead of what it used to be. Other businessmen ask me, 'What if I train my employees and they leave?' I ask them, 'What if you don't train them and they stay?'"

Perhaps even more important to ensuring his lofty customer-service standards is the example Sheldrake himself sets.

We found ourselves in Long Beach on a mid-week getaway. Because we own our own business, we can get away anytime we like — which isn't to say we can get away from our laptops. Typically, the day before our departure for that port city, we got very busy. Having spent much of a fortnight in Michigan the month before clackety-clacking away at Caribou Coffee, I was determined to spend THIS working vacation not at a chain but at a java joint with a little local color.

Other businessmen ask me, 'What if I train my employees and they leave?' I ask them, 'What if you don't train them and they stay?'
I'd heard Belmont Shore was a pretty groovy part of Long Beach, and when you Google "Belmont Shore coffee free wifi" Polly's comes up first (well, fourth, actually, after OpenWifiSpots.com, Starbucks and a Yelp page devoted to the now-shuttered It's a Grind Coffee House). Digital due diligence deemed Polly's Gourmet Coffee the winner.

We arrived after the morning rush and were thus able to set up shop near two electrical outlets. When you know you're going to be parked for a while, electrical outlets are critical. So is the goodwill that comes from shelling out for a branded coffee mug. (Polly's oversized white china mugs, with logo emblazoned in red, are particularly appealing.) The coffee itself was as rich and chewy as the online reviews had claimed.

Creamy cups in hand, we got down to business. HOURS later, just when I began to fear we were wearing out our welcome and would soon be getting the stinkeye from the staff, it became clear that we needed ... a printer. What to do? Leaving our cozy coffee-scented confines to find a Kinko's seemed inconceivable.

So Simon headed to the back, walking left along the magnificent German, c. 1929, 15-kilo Probat coffee roaster, where Mike Sheldrake has an "office" tucked into a makeshift corridor that leads to the restroom. And guess what? He allowed Simon to plug in and print out. Repeatedly. That, dear readers, is what you call "customer service."

With this simple, generous, we-do-whatever-it-takes gesture, Polly's gained two new fans who will return whenever they're in Long Beach, but who have also told their loved ones about the place, befriended Polly's on Facebook — and posted a piece about Sheldrake's customer-service branding acumen that we hope you'll share with YOUR nearest and dearest.

Imagine our shock when we found this quality of customer care in a pair of Long Beach locales. The second was the mighty Queen Mary, on which we stayed for two blissful nights. The retired ocean liner, a former flagship of the Cunard Line, has been permanently docked in Long Beach since 1967.

ImageI won't bother to enumerate the myriad benefits* of staying aboard the HMS Queen Mary, most of which I'd anticipated. What we HADN'T expected was the heroic service provided by the front-desk staff.

The Queen has free wifi, too, but her various structures were apparently so solidly rendered by the shipbuilders of Scotland's John Brown and Company that the farther you are from the servers, the less robust the connection. Suddenly on deadline and exasperated, Simon marched up to the desk and announced that he needed working Internet IMMEDIATELY. The concierge quickly escorted him into the Queen's business offices, where he was ushered to a work station and welcomed to stay as long as he liked. I joined him there — and we used the printer, too!

Thus I was converted from a satisfied guest to a Queen Mary devotee. Can I say enough about the Queen? No, I can't. Are we spending the weekend of December 18 shipboard with five other couples who we insisted join us? Yes, we are.

By contrast, I was recently forced to demand a letter of apology from a Las Vegas hotelier on behalf of a dear friend whose stay (and ours) was marred by an overzealous security guard. The general manager grudgingly issued the letter only after I pointed out that another unhappy guest had posted a negative review on Yelp detailing the abuses of hotel security. Will I be going back to that hotel? No. Have I told everyone I know not to go to that hotel? Yes.

The way you treat your guests, customers or clients is as much a hallmark of your branding as your website, your advertising and your letterhead. Discount the impact of quality service at your peril.

Need to kvell or carp about a business you've come into contact with? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it Also, if you have a reliable, reasonably priced travel printer to recommend, please This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

*Okay, I will enumerate ONE benefit: Speaking of peril, the ship's haunted! See what I mean at the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor 18 Nights of Terror Halloween Event — if you dare. Muhahahahaha!