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From Gort to great

Jan 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Editor's Desk

Rich Scholer recently sent me a five-page article called “The System.” “I’m not trying to demean or judge the hard working people in this industry,” he explained in a postscript. “My article was meant to titillate the minds of modern-day management and to raise critical questions about customer service.”

I have spoken to many printers who launched their careers in other professions, including one lifeguard, a couple of lawyers and some accountants. Few, however, could match Scholer’s resume, which included a stint in the Army (artillery), 20 years on the New York State police force and a brief interval as a charter boat captain.

These days, Scholer is the owner of Park Lane Graphics (Armonk, NY), a family-run print brokerage founded in 1983. “We are a one million dollar company and attribute our success to our customers and our ability to place any particular printing job on the machinery best suited [to it],” he explains. “We are a sales rep or distributor for 33 different trade plants.”

Twenty-five years ago, says Scholer, customer service was better because human beings had more control. But automation is changing the equation. “Are people running the printing business or is the printing business running people?” he asks. “On a daily basis, ‘The System’ is slowly taking charge.”

“The System” is Scholer’s term for the frequent answer when he queries a CSR about a print job: “Let me check the system.”

“It’s almost like the system is some mystical phenomenon that has an answer for everything,” says Scholer. “Here’s a typical System response: ‘If you have your order in by January 12th, your order will ship at 2:00 p.m. on February 17.’”

Ask again later
Worse yet, adds Scholer, some CSRs now simply parrot back The System’s machine-speak. “They are starting to sound like the robot, Gort, from the 1950s movie, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’” declares Scholer. “They’ll mechanically say: ‘You have made a change to your job at Step No. 10. Therefore you must go back to Step No. 1.’ In the past, you could have made a change and moved on. Today, you have to start over, change the program and reschedule, which generally involves new dates, times and everything else. The bottom line is that beyond the CEO or president, The System is the ultimate decision maker, presumably because The System does not make mistakes.”

The System, in Scholer’s experience, only cares about time, dates, schedules and pricing. “There is no way The System can come close to a human being. We feel that customer service must involve a very personal approach,” says Scholer. “It is this effort that will separate your company from the median.”

But there is one potential advantage to employing The System. “Imagine being able to circumvent direct accountability,” marvels Scholer. “We could just tell our customers, ‘Sorry, The System says your job will be late.’ We could feel good about ourselves, too, knowing we’d tried our best, but the system overruled us. What a great way to shift the blame.”

As tempting as that sounds, however, Park Lane Graphics won’t be implementing “The System.” “There is no way I will tell our customers we [have relinquished] control of their job to The System,” says Scholer. “We will continue to tell our customers what we have told them for the past 23 years: ‘We will do whatever it takes to complete your job and get it to you on time.’”

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Years ago, a print buyer told me, “The biggest problem we run into with every printer we deal with is customer service reps. CSRs aren’t paid very well and they come and go. But consistency at this position is very important, because we don’t talk to the salespeople very often. We talk to the CSRs.”

The fault lies not in our Systems, but in ourselves. Most of us have run afoul of modern technology—who hasn’t gotten lost in some labyrinthine phone system and yelled, “But I just want to talk to real person!” You might not agree with all of Scholer’s arguments. But ask yourself, is it easy to do business with your company? Or are your customers silently thinking what Rich Scholer is saying?

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