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A step beyond customer service

Dec 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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The status of customer service representatives has improved in recent years, especially in the eyes of customers. However, CSRs — or the equivalent title in many companies — are rarely invited to sales meetings or consulted on strategy and business development issues. Interestingly, when asked to differentiate their respective companies, my experience is that at least half of all owners and senior managers will respond, “Service.”

‘Service’ is as nebulous a term as ‘quality’

To some customers, service might mean something as simple as speaking to a live receptionist rather than an automated system. To others, it means a confidentiality agreement. Some buyers place a high value on an annual management-to-management meeting to review the buyer-seller relationship and to discuss ideas for incremental improvement.

Meaningful service — an experience — is the result of understanding customer needs as well as wants. Few of us can articulate a service we've never heard about or experienced. Instead, many graphic arts firms do a good job of meeting customer requests but do not provide a unique experience to accounts.

Today, printing companies have reconciled themselves to the idea that a 10-day production turnaround cycle might not be competitive. A combination of will, technology, implicit or overt threats from important customers, and sharpened competition have resulted in abbreviated turnaround times. Is this perceived as superior service by customers?

Print companies may answer in the affirmative. Like it or not, most customers expect that level of responsiveness. “We can't do that” is an unacceptable response in this era, and our industry has, in large part, done a good job of providing first-rate customer service and developing first-rate customer service representatives (two separate concepts).

Many owners and senior managers have asked me, “What more can we do? We provide good product, on time, at a competitive price.” The next level is to create unique experiences for customers. Let's look at some examples.

Go the extra mile

A Midwest commercial printer empowered its customer service reps to spend a maximum of $1,000 each to assist a customer. (The only condition: The circumstances and action had to be documented and reported.) Delivery of a time-sensitive job was threatened by a piece of bindery equipment with a defective part. After exhausting all other options, the CSR spent $800 to fly to the East Coast to retrieve the part. Some would call this a waste of $800. After many years, the customer still tells others about the experience. The resultant good will and additional business are incalculable.

Some printers take it upon themselves to proofread and double-check customer copy. When an error is detected, it is presented in a manner that doesn't demean the buyer and doesn't lead the customer to believe that the printer assumes liability for proofreading. Letters from print buyers express loyalty and admiration for a supplier that operates at this level of detail to help a customer.

Customers that have been invited to the morning production meeting or a sales meeting of a graphic arts company might be disarmed and delighted at the invitation, whether or not they take advantage of it.

The lobby of a printing company specializing in fine art reproductions features customers' work. In another case, a receptionist recognizes and acknowledges callers, or stands up to greet visitors.

A memorable experience is not a coffee mug, memo pad or holiday greeting card bearing the name of the printing company. Those are nice gestures, but they fail to qualify as experiences to be related to others.

This business might get better, but it doesn't get any easier. There is always another mountain to climb. What is extraordinary today might become ordinary, even expected, tomorrow. The customer service revolution is over, like it or not. On January 2, 2000, a printer hung a giant banner from the roof of his plant. It said, “The Nineties Were Only Practice.” It's relevant today; only the dates have changed.

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