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Ask what they want… and give it to 'em!

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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In 1990, Doubleday published a wonderful book on customer service, “Customers for Life — How to Turn That One-Time Buyer into a Lifetime Customer,” by Carl Sewell.

Sewell inherited a car dealership in Dallas and decided he wanted to be the city's No. 1 car dealer. He sensed that, in order to do that, he had to satisfy his customers. And to satisfy customers, he needed to know what they wanted.

Thus, the title of Chapter 1 reads, “Ask your customers what they want… and give it to 'em.” Sewell describes how he went about it: “We asked customers what they didn't like about doing business with us, and they told us… They found the service hours — usually 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday — inconvenient. They thought some of our employees were rude, they hated being without a car while the dealership was working on theirs and worst of all, they often had to bring their car back a second or third time to get a repair done right.”

Then Sewell took action. He loaned cars to customers, free of charge. He started with five and eventually, the fleet grew to 257. He provided all-day Saturday service. He extended weekday hours to 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Drivers delivered loaners to customer homes and drove the customers' cars back to the shop. After the work was done, they drove the cars back to the customer and picked up the loaned vehicles.

If a customer returned with a car that was not properly repaired, it went back to the same technician who did the original work. After the vehicle was properly fixed, the dealership worked to eliminate the flaws in its system that allowed the mistake to happen.


Sewell's ideas dovetail perfectly with my own work experiences. When I was a production manager, one of our customers was producing a complex hardbound book that had to be distributed at a company meeting on a specific date. The public relations (PR) manager in charge of the project knew something about printing. But to get through this major undertaking, he hired a temporary worker — who knew absolutely nothing about printing. Let's call her Laura.

The PR manager would tell Laura to get some aspect of the project done. Either because he didn't explain it well or because she knew too little about the production process, she would call me and say something like, “My boss told me to do such and so. What did he mean by that?”

Most of the time I could figure it out, and help her. Other times I would have her ask him some questions, then tell me his answers.

The book did come out on time, and it was a complete success. The company was so grateful to Laura that they hired her full-time and gave her a responsible position. From that day, Laura ordered printing only from the companies where I was production manager. She also cajoled her co-workers to do the same.

The moral is in Sewell's message: If you want to win customers for life, find out what they want and give it to them. Laura needed technical help. I supplied it. She became a loyal customer.


If you were to assemble a group of print customers and ask them what they want from printers, here are some responses you would probably get:

  • Good print quality at low prices
  • Fast turnaround times (and fast quoting of prices)
  • Good customer service: courtesy, friendliness, truthfulness, flexibility and availability
  • Understanding of my specific needs
  • Technical expertise and education on printing
  • Help in finding solutions, such as achieving cost reductions, improving job specifications to meet desired results, using environmentally friendly products and achieving shorter cycle times
  • Being kept informed of what I, the customer, must do (and by when); when I'll get my proofs; and when my job will deliver
  • Accurate proofing
  • On-time delivery — and delivery to the right destinations
  • Fair and accurate invoicing.

Naturally, not every customer is as concerned about the same things as every other customer. The trick, for printers, is to know what all of their customers want the most. Then give it to them.