CUSTOMER SERVICE

Oct 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Empowering your service and order-taking reps to do whatever it takes to solve customer problems can help you retain customers and even win over new ones from the competition. The key is to think of such situations – whether they stem from the customer’s errors, a mistake on your part, or an event beyond everyone’s control – as “opportunities” rather than problems.

While doing whatever is necessary to satisfy the customer is a given among most mailers, the benefits to such feats as delivering an order hours after it’s placed or buying last-minute replacement items from a competitor in order to fulfill an order can be priceless. Customers more often than not become lifers when catalogers do the unimaginable.

Twelfth-hour replacements

Farmington Hills, MI-based Nailco Group, a $45 million cataloger of beauty salon supplies and equipment, retained one loyal customer by going beyond the call of duty. According to Nailco president/owner Larry Gaynor, it’s not unusual for beauty professionals to order equipment at the last minute – right before opening a new shop or launching an operation in an existing shop – to retain cash flow. But problems can arise when essential equipment such as a manicure table or nail polish doesn’t arrive on time due to loss or damage in delivery.

Last year, a nail care specialist wanted to open her booth in a beauty salon on a Saturday, but by Friday she had yet to receive her nail table, chairs, polishes, towels, brushes, and other necessary items she had ordered from Nailco that Wednesday. Since the order was evidently held up in transit, Nailco contacted a competitor, a noncatalog distributor located near the customer. “We let the competitor know who we were and the predicament our customer was in, ordered what the customer needed from the competitor, and had the competitor express-deliver it directly to the customer,” Gaynor says.

Nailco wasn’t concerned about losing the customer’s business to the competitor, because, for one thing, the distributor carries different brands. Furthermore, in her previous shop, the customer had been a loyal Nailco customer, Gaynor points out.

After opening her booth on time, the customer kept most of the items she received from the distributor, though she did return the table in favor of the Nailco table that arrived two days later. And since then, she has continued to be a steady Nailco customer, spending $200-$300 on goods every few weeks, Gaynor says.

Special orders

Coming through with special orders of hard-to-find items can help business catalogers woo buyers away from competitors. For instance, less than a year ago, Melville, NY-based MSC Industrial Direct, a $609 million cataloger of hardware and other industrial equipment, received a telephone call from a customer in Pennsylvania looking for an $80 NPT-Tap, a type of pipe tread that the customer needed to keep his production line going. This customer had been ordering most of his goods through an MSC competitor, says senior vice president Chuck Moyer.

Spotting the opportunity to quickly fulfill an urgent order for an item that wasn’t widely stocked by local suppliers or national catalogers, MSC picked the order out of its Harrisburg, PA, distribution center and delivered it to the customer within a few hours. As a result, the customer has since shifted “a large portion of his business” to MSC, Moyer says.

As Moyer sees it, “People do a lot of repeat buying from various sources in the industrial supplies business. And when you’re trying to break in customers, you talk to them and wait for your chance.” When an opportunity arises and you come through, “you make that good impression, develop credibility, and walk through the customer’s door.”

`Meet me on the 5:03′

Sometimes speedy service requires more than tossing an express order on a truck or a plane. Several years ago, Viking Office Products, a $1.7 billion Los Angeles-based office supplies cataloger, encountered a customer in Edinburgh, Scotland, who needed labels for a business meeting scheduled to take place in London later that day. “She had no idea how she could get these labels there in time,” says Viking vice chairman Irwin Helford. “So our U.K. sales agent, who was in Leicester [about halfway between Edinburgh and London], found out that the customer was going to take a train from Edinburgh to London, and that it made a stop in Leicester. The agent then drove the labels to the station stop and handed them through the train’s window to the customer.”

Like most catalogers that pull off lifesaving customer service feats, Helford says the company’s phone reps are empowered to do whatever it takes at virtually any expense. “The idea is to impress customers so much that they get much more than they expect,” he says. “And that’s what we did in this situation.”

Crashing systems

Unfortunately, not all problems can be solved by empowering CSRs. Sometimes you’ve got to call on your customers themselves to lend a hand. When Cranford, NJ-based All-State Legal, a manufacturer/cataloger of stationery for the legal profession, converted its computers a few years ago to integrate its manufacturing, order entry, and customer service, its system crashed. The company lost track of 30% of its open manufacturing orders, says marketing manager Susan Jacobs.

Because All-State Legal still possessed the manually entered records of the orders on its old system, the orders weren’t lost altogether, but some elements within orders were. “We then worked 48 hours straight to rectify the problem by manually putting back all these orders,” with top management pitching in to help, Jacobs says. Many orders were shipped several days late, and in a number of cases, executives hand-delivered orders withinthe New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area.

But many of the customers whose orders were delayed by the computer crash were in particular need of exhibit dividers (tabbed sheets for organizing legal documents). So All-State Legal contacted customers who had recently received shipments of goods and asked those companies if they could lend some of their exhibit dividers to in-need customers in nearby areas, and arranged for pick up and delivery. “Our customers understand and appreciate the need for those items in law offices and were willing to lend those other firms their excess inventory,” Jacobs says. All-State Legal then had the companies that received goods from other customers reorder and pay for replacement dividers for the generous customer donors.

While she can’t determine the monetary effect the mishap and recovery had on business, Jacobs nevertheless says that both the customers affected by the crash and those who agreed to lend their folders remain “among our best customers.”

Are business-to-business mailers more management-savvy than their consumer counterparts? According to the 1999 Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Operations (May issue), while just 42% of consumer catalogers monitor calls for quality control and retraining purposes, 58% of b-to-b respondents do.

Business catalogers are also more inclined than consumer catalogers to offer their customer service reps incentives. An impressive 52% of b-to-b catalogers offer bonuses, recognition, merchandise, or other forms of incentives, while only 41% of consumer catalogers offer service reps any incentives.