Great Expectations

Common sense will tell you that if you don’t provide a customer with service that meets his expectations, he isn’t going to make a repeat purchase from your company. But what many catalogers have found is that during the past few years, customers have grown to expect much more from companies than they used to.

Jules Silbert, executive vice president of multititle mailer Brylane, believes that the immediacy of the Internet has led buyers to expect quicker, near-immediate service from companies: “The rising customer service expectations … accelerated, no doubt, with the advent of the Internet, plus inventory forecasting and the ability to rapidly rebuy and restock merchandise.” In other words, customers expect exactly what they want, and they expect it immediately.

To help address these greater expectations, Silbert said, Brylane has worked to improve its buying and rebuying strategies—“that doesn’t mean necessarily the systems part of it, but the techniques of it; in other words when and how much” to buy and rebuy.

Then there’s the matter of “communicating more effectively with our customer when we can’t meet her expectations,” Silbert continued. “We’re doing this by offering choices aimed at maintaining her satisfaction, at least as best as we can; you all know that if you’re going to sell merchandise, you’re going to have backorders.”

While the Web has in some ways made shopping easier for customers—to the point where buyers now expect near-instantaneous service—Lee Lorenzen, CEO of online mall Catalog City and software provider Altura International, thinks there’s still plenty of room for customer service improvement: “Three years, five years from now, consumers are going to be shopping through a multivendor shopping cart. They may come to your site, they’re going to put something in there, they may go to another site.They’re not going to reregister. They’re not going to fill out your forms with a wallet. They’re going to be recognized with a cookie as they transfer from site to site to site or if they do their shopping on the sites that they’re already on. It’s going to be a multivendor single shopping cart with a single address book, a single location for order history.”

CRM or Plain Old Circulation Management?

Catalogers are also making the Internet part of their customer contact strategy. “We actually use the Internet to convey new messages to our customers,” said Fred Young, CEO of networking supplies cataloger Black Box Corp. “We see those as working in conjunction with each other, and that’s how we keep them up to date with new stuff. Our customers are looking at the Internet every day, and we highlight what’s new, and they go right to it.” It’s a matter of giving the people what they want, how they want it: via the mail, the phone, or e-mail: the basis of customer relationship management (CRM).

Silbert, for one, noted “that what we used to call circulation management is really more becoming customer relations management. Because particularly with dual-channel [marketing] now, what we’re trying to do is set up all the customer’s experience in one spot so that we can tell what she’s doing in a multichannel way and be able to react to that with a much more intelligent scenario, which makes the whole job description quite different from what it was before.”

Being able to contact customers where, when, and how they wish is a major area of investment for multititle general merchandise mailer Fingerhut Cos. According to president Michael Sherman, “We’re just not going to spend capital to have the most servers or the biggest ERP budget; quite the contrary. … We’re going to continue to spend money where it makes sense for us, [on] customer segmentation analysis and software that enables us to have individual customized customer contact strategies. Why? Because we can get more customers, and we can retain them longer, and we can have a higher lifetime value. That’s the endgame.”

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