Greenville, SC-based Super Duper Publications, which sells materials for speech therapists and teachers, has made the human touch a cornerstone of its business. Customer service representatives (CSRs) have instant computer access to customers’ buying histories and can talk to buyers about how previously purchased products worked for them. If a customer has a problem with an order, he receives a handwritten note of apology along with the replacement shipment. And catalogs include photos and bios of Super Duper’s employees.
“Some customers call to speak to a particular CSR whom they had talked to in the past or read about in the catalog,” says Tom Webber, who founded the company in 1986 with his wife, Sharon.
“I think our customers feel at home with our catalog because they perceive that we’re friendly and personable,” adds Sharon, a speech pathologist, who began the business as a hobby when she stopped teaching to start a family.
Initially, the catalog was a one-page flier promoting two books and two sticker designs for rewarding students in speech therapy. Ten years, six children, and a 208-page catalog later, Tom folded his law practice to join the company full-time. Super Duper’s 2000 sales were $12.5 million on a circulation of 325,000. The company has a staff of 66, including 11 CSRs, and it projects sales for 2001 of more than $16.0 million. The company handles 30-40 phone orders a day in addition to receiving about 20 Web orders daily and an average of 300-350 orders via mail daily; during the summer, when most teachers buy supplies, the number of mail orders grows to about 425 a day.
As befits a company whose audience is speech professionals, Super Duper listens carefully to prospective CSRs before hiring. “A CSR’s voice is an extension of the presentation of the catalog,” Tom Webber says, so the cataloger puts a premium on friendly-sounding voices.
Of course, Super Duper’s CSRs have to do more than sound friendly. The reps also must also be able to think on their feet, as they are expected to make decisions regarding order problems without placing the customer on hold and consulting with a manager.
“Our CSRs have the authority to send a replacement product the next day if needed for a lost or delayed order,” Tom says. “We empower our CSRs to make every order right, and we tell them that they’ll never be in trouble for making a decision if the customer is happy.”
Crash course in speech pathology
Then there’s the matter of product training. Four staff speech pathologists train the CSRs on an ongoing basis as to how the products are used, as well as on industry terminology and what questions to anticipate from customers. Because 54% of the products are proprietary, designed by staffers and hired authors, the Webbers believe it is especially important for the phone reps to be familiar with the merchandise.
“We don’t expect the CSRs to be speech pathologists, but we expect them to understand the basic terms and how the products work,” Tom says. Customers who call during the regular call center hours (8:15 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Eastern time) can talk to one of the staff pathologists for special requests or to answer questions that CSRs might not be able to answer, such as product recommendations for children with rare or multiple speech disorders. Tom estimates that the staff pathologists handle 15-20 calls a week. If a customer calls after regular business hours with questions for a speech pathologist, the CSRs are to take a message so that a pathologist can return the call the following business day. (After hours the phones are staffed not by Super Duper but by an outside call center.)
Super Duper call center employees meet each morning to discuss any issues that have or might come up. It’s important to the overall success of the business that all staffers know of any problems and how they were resolved, Tom Webber says. “The customer will always tell us if something isn’t quite right regarding our product or service, and we should never allow a breakdown in staff communication to get in the way of serving the customer.”
Super Duper is big on soliciting customer feedback — and following up on it. The Website, launched in January 2000, offers a link enabling visitors to e-mail the company, as well as bulletin boards for customers who want to discuss products and issues pertinent to speech pathology. Every day the Webbers review all the e-mails — and often act upon them immediately. For instance, one customer e-mailed that he could not find a single list of all the music available from Super Duper. “As soon as I read that, I went to our Web designer and asked if we could arrange our products by product category, such as music and books,” Tom says. “He had it up within a day.”
The company also leaves space on its order envelopes for customer comments. “Whenever we receive letters or comments from customers, we share them with the staff,” Tom says. And Super Duper prints customers’ letters in the catalog.
“We are hands-on managers and owners,” Sharon says. “We receive copies of all incoming mail, and that allows us to get the full picture of our customers’ comments and how our CSRs are responding to them.”
Certainly the human touch can extend only so far. Packages and invoices, for instance, do not normally include a handwritten note. They do include a gift, however. “With every order we send a packet of 50 stickers that speech pathologists can use to label their new textbooks and products,” Sharon says.