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Sep 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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In the old days, when supermarket baggers loaded groceries into the back seat and service station attendants pumped gas and washed windshields, no one talked of "relationship-building," "partnering" or being "customer-centric."

Simply, the customer was king. It would appear everything old is new again. "Actually, from what I've read, the customer is no longer king," reports Dick Gray, general manager of S&S Graphics (Laurel, MD). "In the '90s, the customer is a god."

And as an omnipotent force with special powers over the lives and affairs of printers and the course of their industry's evolving nature, they are to be exalted. According to research by the International Customer Service Assn., based in Chicago, a full 68 percent of customers in the United States stop doing business with a company due to a perception of poor service. Debbie Ayres, a specialist with the Society for Service Professionals in Printing (Alexandria, VA), says it's even worse inside the printing business.

"More than 90 percent of unhappy customers will never buy from you again and they won't bother to tell you why," she warns. "But they'll sure tell other people. It's a small world when it comes to print buying and word gets around."

Industry consultant Lou Laurent figures the fallout this way: "We see the largest losses in our clients' business due to poor treatment of customers, and since printers are typically quite bad at prospecting to find new accounts, they're in deep trouble if they lose their existing accounts."

Indeed, today's highly competitive industry already has too many printers offering similar products and services for anyone not to understand the need for meeting and exceeding customers' expectations . Outstanding quality and competitive rates are the price of admission--happy customers are the requisite for long-term survival. A proactive printing service specialist always looks for ways to identify customer needs and wants, and then makes certain each one is fulfilled. Often, top-notch customer service is a matter of anticipating customer needs before clients even know they exist. Don't forget, the Golden Rule of business says, "Treat customers as you want to be treated, then add 10 percent."

"The biggest complaint out there is indifference --situations in which buyers aren't made to feel as if they're that big fish in a small pond," says Ayres. "Whether they are or not is irrelevant. What is important is if they are treated like a big client, because maybe one day they will become a big client."

Critical to building and keeping a happy customer base is the customer service representative (CSR), who acts as the liaison between the plant and the client or the plant and the salesperson. While there are still owners and managers who view the position as bottom-rung scut work, more and more recognize the need for educated, well-trained people who have an understanding of the technical side in addition to excellent communication skills.

"Basically, a lot of firms take the CSR as a lower-valued position, but in my estimation it's one of the highest valued positions regardless of how you cut the pie," says George Fiel, president of Image Systems, Inc. (Menomonee Falls, WI). "Our customers take service, quality and turnaround for granted. It's expected. So what are you going to add extra? It's that personal relationship in which the customer feels they're part of your family--they're inside the gate." The commercial printer believes so strongly in the CSR's role in carrying out this relationship that Image Systems has no outside sales force, Instead, there are 10 CSRs, eight working first shift and two on second shift. Other departments handle areas such as quoting and estimating, unburdening the CSR for total client involvement.

As far as sales compensation offered CSRs, it's 15 percent to 20 percent higher than competitors' rates, says Fiel. "We really value that service they add."

As for letting customers know how much they are valued, Image Systems gives them open communication with many different departments, such as data management, preflight, color control, assembly, etc. CSRs also have electronic database management access allowing them to go inside their schedules and reprioritize jobs 24 hours a day.

"You want that interaction to be as open as possible," explains Fiel. "The client leads the parade and you're simply a member of that parade. They'll basically put you on the path. If you just follow it, and don't try to build your own road, you'll survive."

At the same time, customers who don't have printing expertise need savvy coaching so that they can be served more efficiently. Of course, this means the CSR or sales rep must have expertise to share.

"A lot of times you're predicting the customers' need or helping them develop their needs, so I don't think a CSR can ever have enough knowledge," says James McDaniel, who worked seven years as a press operator before moving into customer service and eventually winning SSPP's Printing Service Specialist of the Year award in 1996. He is now a production manager at Oxmoor House (Birmingham, AL).

"I've come up through the years when the CSR was referred to as a necessary evil, but it has developed into a position in which customer service is looked to for information and guidance rather than being a whipping post. I don't see myself as the CSR who just takes instructions, but as a consultant who can interpret information and give friendly feedback."

Ayres warns against CSRs having an underlying air of superiority, which is easily detected and a big turn off: "For the most part, customer service reps know how to act and don't come across as condescending. But sometimes they give off the impression that their customers don't know anything. The truth is a lot of buyers really do know what they want."

While Fiel says he won't hire a CSR without an "extremely strong background in graphic arts," people skills carry the highest value once the person is on the job. "That's something you can't teach--that's something you're born with," he says.

Bonnie Sigel, a top salesperson for Acorn Press (Lancaster, PA), with $1 million in sales her first year, stressesthat a client wants trust in the company's front-line representative, whether it's a salesperson or CSR, almost above all else. "If customers know they can rely on you, they're willing to pay an added premium--it's not exactly low bid all the time," says Sigel, who is so well-regarded by customers some have even asked her to come and talk to their sales forces about her winning style.

"There's a definite trust you have to form with your customers--they have to know you're on their side, that they can call on you whenever and you'll always follow through and be their advocate, making sure they get what they want. They'll pay for that peace of mind, knowing their job is going to turn out right and be delivered on time. For the really good customers, I'll make sure they get priority in the pressroom if they need a fast turnaround. Basically, I'll bend over backward for clients to produce jobs in their time frame and in the fashion they want them."

But Sigel does admit there are times when a customer can be difficult. The way to change their ways, she's convinced, is to simply tell them. "Customers need to know if we're just not clicking."

Sigel remembers when she told a client Acorn wanted to continue doing her work, but couldn't afford the business because it was always the lowest bid.

"I told her if she needed a high-quality printer and could pay just a little bit more for the job, Acorn would give her beautiful work," recalls Sigel. "The client just looked at me with shock. Two weeks later she gave us a $100,000 ongoing yearly job and didn't even bid it out to anyone else."

Ayres says once customers have been coached on areas for improvement, with other common examples being presenting their materials in a timely and error-free fashion and avoiding last-minute alterations, they should be thanked for what they "do right" and even rewarded for their improvements. She suggests giving out special awards for those clients who improve job workflow and/or special mention in the company newsletter. Also, provide them with "clean order discounts."

Grand River Printing & Imaging, a heatset and non-heatset web printer in Royal Oak, MI, has had good success sending a "report card" to clients upon the completion of jobs to outline ways to improve the process. Problems with incoming digital files, such as missing fonts and size discrepancies, is one of the areas reviewed.

"The report card basically tells them the things that slowed jobs down and cost money for alterations," explains Jeannie Bartlett, Grand River sales manager. "To keep it light and positive, we use little stickers on the form. For areas they've corrected, we use a happy face sticker and for problems we use a concerned face or a figure who's jumping up and down. The most important thing you can do for customers is to share your knowledge to help them learn how to be better. Sometimes they appreciate the advice and sometimes they don't, but it's in everybody's best interest. It's important customers understand what you're trying to achieve, which is to get their job done faster and cheaper."

Just as a company should let their customers know how they are performing, customers must be invited to hand out their own grades. This is where surveys, questionnaires and focus groups can be a tremendous aid in pinpointing clients' individual priorities, motivators, values, hot buttons, pet peeves, etc. The idea is to learn what makes customers tick.

"Half the printers do surveys of some sort now and the other half don't have a clue--they've never thought to ask customers what they want," says Ayres, adding that many managers mistakenly use high sales and low complaint numbers as sole barometers of customer satisfaction. "Most of the times printers know the technology better than the buyer, but that doesn't mean they know what the clients' priorities are, or their expectations, or their needs. Maybe printers think quality is the No. 1 priority when it's not. Not everyone needs the perfect annual report or brochure. Maybe it's the information getting out on time that's most important."

A course offered through SSPP focuses on developing fact-finding techniques, choosing the right type of survey for different recipients and custom-designing questions and specific wording for accurate and highly targeted feedback. Types of surveys include self-mailing survey cards, which are enclosed each time a product or service is delivered, initial point-of-purchase surveys, general mail questionnaires, one-on-one telephone interviews and phone surveys limited to 10 minutes.

Ayres recommends companies first do an internal survey of various departments to determine what various staffers want to know from customers. When it comes to telephone vs. written surveys, she prefers the intimacy the phone provides: "You just tend to get more accurate information over the phone. People tend to talk more than they write."

At Block Graphics (Portland, OR), annual weekend-long informal focus groups, in which small groups of their best customers are flown from across the country to air their opinions, provide frank, in-depth feedback. Clients and staff are surveyed ahead of time to provide pertinent discussion topics.

"Customers typically arrive on a Friday and we shut the factory down, setting out tables and chairs in the middle of the plant floor and letting production workers join in," reports Dick Wiegand, vice president of marketing for the 197-employee printer of forms and envelopes. "They get to talk to everyone, from the press operators to the art and prepress department. The next day we sit at a round-table in the lunch room and review how we work together and what we can do better. It's very informal, with people in sweat pants and T-shirts. Clients are encouraged to be candid. After the meeting, we'll produce a report that is sent to all our customers, listing our shortcomings. It's part of showing our customers we're a very open type of place; we're not trying to hide anything and we gain credibility and stature because of that."

Never underestimate the bond that is built with face-to-face contact, especially in the initial stages of a client relationship, stresses McDaniel.

"It's like anything you do in life, the better off you can start, the better off you'll be down the road," he says, recommending the sales representative or CSR invite a new client out for a long, leisurely lunch at the outset. "A lot of times the buyers livelihood or their reputation is riding on what you're producing and it's kind of a scary thing to turn over to somebody carte blanche. Just talking to someone on the phone doesn't instill the same confidence because they can't see my face. It's a matter of establishing an (intimate) communication line and doing everything to protect it."

Michael Branham, a market researcher of the printing industry who measures customer satisfaction and loyalty and author of the book Competitive Advantage, says print buyers enthusiastically proclaim that the account manager or sales representative is the most important variable in the establishment of a long-term relationship with a printer and that they would likely follow their representative to whatever company he or she transferred to.

This reality lends further credence to the time-honored canon that everyone inside a business, from the janitor to the CEO, must share responsibility for the customer's loyalty.

"Many owners and plant managers assume as long as they have customer service and sales management departments, all they really have to do is watch the bottom line and think about what piece of equipment they're going to buy next," Laurent explains. "Typically, it's only when a problem becomes a crisis that the owner or plant manager steps in and assures the customer that the problem is fixed, and it won't happen again.This means the only time they have direct contact with the customer, outside of an occasional golf game with the top five accounts, it's a confrontational encounter."

Laurent recommends top management take a proactive approach by scheduling personal meetings two to four times a year with their top 25 accounts, including lunches and other semi-social outings."It shows they want to know client s personally," he explains. "For the client, they then feel comfortable going to that manager if things are really bad. The customer senses they have a direct line for getting their message across." Branham says his company's research reveals that the price of ongoing industry consolidation has been a "tendency to supplant the priority of customer service with the obligatory priority of maximizing shareholder wealth." Smaller printing companies, as a result, often score highest in customer satisfaction and loyalty.

"Smaller companies give it the emphasis it needs whereas bigger companies necessarily must become more involved in the managerial side," he explains. "They end up getting further and further removed from the day-to-day operations and the customers themselves. It then becomes easier to lose sight of what the customer is looking for."

As the national customer base has grown at Anderson Lithographic Co. (Los Angeles), a 390-employee firm recently purchased by Mail-Well, there's been no illusions about the need to keep personalized service the No. 1 priority, says Mark Tennant, vice president and director of electronic imaging and new business development.

"Custom service is very critical to the whole process in that it's a custom product we're building--pieces that will never be replicated again," says Tennant. "We know that timeliness of product, including the ability to meet extremely tight deadlines, and overall quality are what they're looking at most critically."

Servicing the high-quality segment of the commercial printing market, Anderson, which had $135 million in sales last year and boasts sales offices from coast to coast, produces a variety of commercial work, including advertising/promotional materials, magazine inserts, annual reports, posters and catalogs. Because the company maintains a single plant in southern California, large client entourages are constantly flown in to the facility, sometimes for a week, to manage their products' development. Anderson accommodates them in ways such as providing a comprehensive hotel and restaurant guide of the vicinity on its Web site. Of course, lunch and dinner for clients is standard practice.

"We try to make their stay as comfortable as possible, reducing the hassles," says Tennant. "We understand their time is valuable so the focus is on executing the job as quickly as possible and getting people back to their home environments."

Toward that end, Anderson's plant has a large, luxurious client lounge for those putting in long hours. Users can watch television, read a magazine or take a nap. A metal sign above the lounge entrance, posted by president and CEO John Fosmire, reads, "Remember--Only Customers Pay Wages." It's a sign Fosmire first saw years ago hanging inside the office of steel tycoon Earle M. Jorgensen, who founded Jorgensen Steel and Aluminum in 1921.

"I was very impressed with the message because that's kind of always been my philosophy," recalls Fosmire. "The customer is the most important thing . . . It's not anything revolutionary. It doesn't take a rocket scientist and yet I find that many people talk the talk and don't walk the walk. I think a lot of this 'partnering' stuff is overplayed--it's a lot of, excuse me, 'MBA Talk.' Everybody sets these things up and looks at them and then they don't know how to execute or how to get them done. My approach to customers is old-fashioned in the sense that I look at them as friends. The idea is to never let them down."

When it comes to providing top-notch customer service, United Litho, Inc. decided that if two heads were better than one, why not try four heads? Hence, the short-run magazine printer in Ashburn, VA recently created six four-member support teams combining the skills of an account executive, a client-support specialist, a planner and a technical digital prepress representative. The team's directive has been to focus on the clients served rather than the printer's internal workflow.

"Typically a printing firm is organized around functions and departments, and that means most of the shared learning that goes on is around the process or the technology," explains Wayne Peterson, sales and marketing director at United Litho and a 22-year veteran of the industry. "Our new structure revolves around groups of clients. This fosters shared learning that is centered on those clients each group is now working for, examining their unique needs."

Each client support team, seated in close proximity to one another for ongoing interaction, is led by an account executive who brings the client into the company. The client-support specialist acts as the primary day-to-day liaison, although clients can contact any member of the team for support. The planner engineers the specific magazine and passes it on to the prepress specialist, who preflights the digital page files. If there is a problem with a file, the prepress specialist contacts the customer to resolve it. This direct link can dramatically reduce cycle time.

"The team approach lets us have more resources at the disposal of the client than under the old model," explains Peterson. "And we've been getting rave reviews from the client. They like the access they get with all the different players. They love the fact that every issue of their magazine is handled by the same planner. They find that we remember the details of the production of their magazine from issue to issue and catch things that they don't catch." Among the 146 short- to medium-run, multi-color magazines United Litho prints are Wine & Spirits, Congressional Quarterly and American Demographics. One positive indicator has been a dramatic drop in paging traffic over the public address system, since the new cluster seating arrangement allows team members to overhear each other's telephone conversations and have constant communication.

"The people who need to communicate with someone else on a particular client issue no longer have to track that person down in another corridor of the plant," says Peterson. "The other thing is voice mail traffic has plummeted." While Peterson reveals there was some resistance to the new concept by the digital prepress department, "It evaporated literally overnight when they realized how much easier the communication was and how much more understandable the work was. The planners, for example, realized they could go up the learning curve so much more rapidly."

As for adapting to a strong team orientation, Peterson says that emerged within the first month: "Very quickly they gained a proprietary sense about their workload and their customers and their responsibilities. They now readily identify themselves with their team. Internally, it's created a healthy but cordial rivalry between the teams. Each worker has a strong sense of ownership and a responsibility for each given client."