CUSTOMER SERVICE: Is service suffering?

The lure of the Web may cause mailers to put the back-end on the back burner

Superior customer service has always been a basic tenet of catalog shopping. But now that most print catalogers are also selling online, some observers worry that all the attention focused on the Web may divert resources from the back-end – and could start to erode customer service levels in general.

“The resources available to customer service departments are harder to come by,” says Valley Stream, NY-based telemarketing consultant Liz Kislik. She also notes that the emphasis on Web marketing is preventing some catalogers from maintaining their current operations systems. “There’s intense pressure to create a sexy Website and make it fully functional, but not enough emphasis on maintaining legacy systems.” For instance, Kislik cites one cataloger that expanded into Web marketing but was operating with such an antiquated order-entry system that its CSRs could not input address changes for delivery.

While it’s tough to prove that catalogers are devoting fewer dollars to traditional service systems, the 4th Annual Electronic Marketing survey (see i.merchant, June issue) indicates a decline in the percentage of respondents who receive, process, and ship electronic orders within 24 hours – a sign perhaps that catalogers are struggling to integrate the back-ends of the two channels. In 1999, 48% of the survey respondents (98% of whom had both catalogs and Websites) shipped orders in 24 hours; this year, only 37% (96% of whom have both print and Web channels) say the same.

For Scottsdale, AZ-based foods cataloger Fairytale Brownies, the influx of orders coming from the Web – which accounted for 50% of all orders in May – has put a strain on getting product delivered, says director of sales and marketing Eileen Spitalny. “Order processing and fulfillment may take a little longer during this time,” she says.

For certain, factors such as longer order processing time, likely caused by mailers having to grapple with the demands of two selling channels, plus the nationwide labor shortage are making it more difficult for mailers to maintain their service edge. But most contacted by Catalog Age claim that service levels have not changed.

In fact, Jack Rosenfeld, president of Medfield, MA-based Potpourri Collections, which includes the Counted Cross Stitch and Back in the Saddle catalogs, says his company has actually increased service levels. This spring, Potpourri began a program to monitor CSRs more closely and also increased the training for new hires, he says.

Training for new hires at Peoria, IL-based multititle horticultural cataloger Foster & Gallagher has increased as well, says Cindy Faulknier, senior vice president of customer relations. What used to be a 40-hour introductory training session now runs about 64 hours, she says, so that “our reps have more knowledge about the products we sell.” And Foster & Gallagher, which receives about 50,000 e-mails annually, recently bought an e-mail management system to better handle online service, she says.

A struggle nonetheless

But other catalogers admit that there is a struggle to balance investing in Web expansion and maintaining existing service customer standards in this multichannel marketing age.

Mt. Vernon, IL-based Anheuser Busch, which mails the Budweiser gifts catalog, for one, is trying to beef up its Web presence without sacrificing service, says assistant warehouse manager Matthew Wright. “We are building our business for the future, but the real challenge is, how do we expand the Web part of our business without losing sight of servicing our current customer?”

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