American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Customer service reps: the unsung heroes

Mar 1, 2006 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Gorelick's Management

I've had the privilege of facilitating and attending dozens of graphic arts companies’ annual planning meetings. In too many cases, the word “privilege” can be better expressed by the word “anguish.”

My homicidal instincts are elevated when an owner or senior manager suggests that the discussion begin with a definition of “what we do best.” Of course, the answer is likely to be, “Black ink on 40-lb. offset with a two-year production cycle.” The implication is that profit is the result of routine. In truth, profit is the consequence of doing the difficult and extraordinary work that is unlikely to draw the interest of competitors.

Planning meetings too often focus upon:

  • Sales force management. Why can’t they get the job specifications correct and complete? Why can’t we have an extra day or two to complete a job? Why are customers so unreasonable?
  • Integrity of electronic files. Why can’t customers get it right?
  • Those dastardly, heathen competitors. Don’t they understand that we’d all make a living if they would understand their costs?
  • Sales/manufacturing conflict. Why can’t we all get along?
In other words, many planning meetings devolve into a high-level, somewhat polite version of everyday conflict. Companies in which this scenario exists rationalize that the sales/manufacturing conflict is an inevitable condition. In my experience, several elements define graphic arts organizations that have minimized interdepartmental conflict:
  • They tend to be profit leaders, a result of making the customer, not fellow staff members, the primary issue.
  • There’s a common, shared focus: the customer. This is a consequence of continual gathering and internal dissemination of information about customers, business markets and the marketplace in general. There is investment in research to understand the attitudes, needs, perceptions, expectations and experiences of current and prospective customers. These companies are more than job-processing factories.
  • All members of ownership and senior management meet customers. This is critical. Sales are not entirely in the hands of sales representatives. There is an understanding that, when asking for internal support, salespeople are referring to management, not simply customer service reps, delivery people and estimators.
  • The customer service function is first-rate in both qualitative and quantitative terms. This aspect of the customer service department has hardly been discussed in industry literature.
I wish I could be helpful to readers of this column, but I can do little more than pose the old chicken-and-egg dilemma: Which came first, excellent CSRs and enough of them, or the enlightened management directing customer-centric culture? I don’t know the answer, either. In this column, I’m simply reporting my observations.

CSRs can save the day
Within the past five years or so, there has been a growing appreciation of the importance and contributions of an effective customer service representative. The transition isn’t complete. Some companies continue to treat a CSR as someone walking behind the proverbial elephant with a giant shovel. Industry ratio studies report the costs of the customer service function as “General Factory Overhead.”

At print companies in which the culture and operating performance are both to be admired, customer service representatives are the broadcasters and defenders of an honest, “gut-level” customer-oriented culture. These are the individuals who typically have modest authority but are in a position to influence the attitudes and behaviors of salespeople, customers and production personnel. They are in a position to maximize their influence by acting as honest brokers.

An effective CSR can use documented alteration charges as a training tool, communicating steps to avoid incurring the same charge in the future. At companies whose management and performance we admire, customer service representatives are knowledgeable advocates for customers’ needs at production meetings.

If you disagree with the observations and conclusions in this column, I will understand. In any industry this large, exceptions and anomalies abound. I consult with only a small portion of the tens of thousands of the business units. The emergence of the customer service function in successful print companies, however, is a subtle development that shouldn’t be overlooked or ignored.

My point: An effective, well-staffed customer service function, according to the anecdotal evidence, can balance and mitigate internal conflict, as well as provide perceived value to customers.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at

To read more of Dick Gorelick’s Management columns, visit our Management Archives.