Five service superstars

As the business-to-business direct marketing arena becomes increasingly competitive, and more large companies-such as the office superstores and major manufacturers-enter the catalog business, providing topnotch service has never been more important. So with input from several b-to-b consultants, we’ve selected five catalogs that set the standard in ordering ease, delivery speed, technical support, and handling returns.

Customer service/ordering ease: Cornerstone Direct and Day-Timers Customers of Cornerstone Direct’s five b-to-b catalogs-Masune First Aid & Safety, Medco Supply Co., ReadyMade, TimeWise, and Turnkey-are rarely put on hold. That’s because Cornerstone phone reps have every imaginable detail about customers and products readily available, says Paul DeMartinis, director of sales for the Tonawanda, NY-based firm.

“We immediately get a customer’s account information up on screen so that we can be done with the order in about 3 or 3-1/2 minutes,” DiMartinis says.

All product information-such as general descriptions, inventory status, quantity discount information, the name and location of the manufacturer-comes up on order-takers’ screens seconds after customers mention what they’re interested in, “so we don’t have to put them on hold,” he says. The price and order-entry system instantly calculates shipping and handling charges, and all orders placed by 5 p.m. are shipped that day.

The Cornerstone Direct catalogs use a software system, created in-house, that’s been customized and updated regularly over the past 10 years, DiMartinis says.

Also, the cataloger’s vendors come into the offices weekly to train order-takers on their products. “Our phone reps listen to demos and touch and feel the products so that they can speak with conviction to customers,” DiMartinis says.

As for Day-Timers, early last year the diary planner cataloger rolled out an extensive customer service system for its phone reps. “They now have more information at their fingertips on their computer screens,” says vice president of operations Herb Brown, “such as the customer’s account history, payment history, and promotional history”-the last of which lets reps know which mailings from the East Texas, PA-based cataloger that the customer has received.

>From the new system, Day-Timers’ service reps can gain all the information >on customers on a single screen. “The agents really like it,” Brown says. >As for customers, “it allows them to get their questions answered on their >first call, decreases the talk time, and substantially increases their >satisfaction,” he says, because they can get off the phone quicker. The >average call length has been reduced from 5 minutes to as few as 4, he >adds.

The $1 million-plus custom-designed software system represents a collaboration between Day-Timers’ operations and information systems departments, with help from IBM. “We designed and developed the requirements document,” Brown says. “IBM then input the basic code. During the transitions, we went through skills transfer with our information systems people maintaining it.”

Shipping/delivery: Viking Office Products To many catalogers, Viking represents the future of order delivery. By contracting with a fleet of some 400 trucks in 10 warehouses serving 22 metropolitan areas, the Los Angeles-based catalog division of retail chain Office Depot provides same-day shipping on 40%-50% of all orders nationwide, with most of the remaining shipments made the next day.

“In a very competitive environment, our commitment to same-day shipping helps us stand out,” says Ron Weissman, Office Depot’s senior vice president of U.S. operations, who oversees Viking’s shipping operations. Filling each truck for two runs a day, the cataloger has a per-package shipping cost comparable to standard United Parcel Service ground delivery rates, he says.

Trucks contracted by Viking arrive at the warehouse docks daily by 7 a.m. to pick up and deliver orders placed after 5 p.m. the night before. The trucks come back at 1 p.m. to load up all orders received that morning and deliver to a 150-mile radius that afternoon.

Viking uses as few as 12 trucks to serve the Minneapolis area, and as many as 60 to serve the larger Los Angeles market. For customers in locations more than 150 miles from its distribution centers, Viking ships orders via UPS air or other air carriers for next-day delivery.

Viking has also spent the past six months testing several enhancements to its same-day service. “We’re testing a ‘friendliest drivers’ program, in which our drivers bring customers a dish filled with M&Ms when they make a first delivery, then refill the dish with M&Ms each time they make other deliveries,” Weissman says. Viking might have drivers bring flowers or cookies in the future, he adds. Viking is also offering monetary incentives to its drivers who deliver larger items, such as office furniture, and then take the furniture out of the cartons. “We’re giving them incentives based on unsolicited comments we receive from customers,” he says.

Technical support: Dell Computer Dell Computer employs specially trained tele-technicians available to answer customer calls on its technical support 800-number 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Austin, TX-based computer catalog giant also staffs at least one technical supervisor ’round the clock, to make sure customers can always get any question answered. “We call our customer service program ‘customer experience’-we want to give the best end-to-end customer experience possible, and that includes support,” says Alissa Litton, the company’s senior manager for technical support.

To prepare for this support duty, reps go through up to four weeks of training. “You hope to hire folks with some troubleshooting and technical skills,” Litton says. She notes that two-thirds of the instruction is dedicated to technical training; the rest covers customer service skills.

Rather than working from a computer manual, the tele-technicians use Dell’s Website to answer customer questions, so that users can see what they’re referring to on the site. The site, however, “is pretty extensive,” Litton points out. “It has troubleshooting guides, specifications, driver updates, and tons of information. So while any customer can access the information, it requires some experience in training with the product.”

Larger corporate customers with multiple computer terminals are given access to an intranet site that provides them with additional troubleshooting information, Litton adds, so that they can handle their problems inhouse if they choose.

Returns handling: Hello Direct Hello Direct’s 30-day money-back guarantee is nothing special. But the San Jose, CA-based telephony products cataloger offers its large call- center customers advance replacements for returned items, which allows customers’ call centers to quickly return to operational status if a line of telephone products doesn’t work out.

“If a product has failed and a corporate customer is an established account, we’ll send out replacements before we receive the original items back,” says vice president of marketing Dennis Waldera.

“We charge customers for the new items but credit back their accounts as soon as the old items come back,” Waldera says. “We will also ship replacement products so that they arrive the next morning if customers call about items they wish to return by 3 p.m. the day before.”

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