SOI 2012 - Customer Service: More to Give

Here's How Successful Firms Are Taking On The Challenge

Customer ServiceNot once in 35 years in business has Memphis-based distributor Signet (asi/326636) lost an account. Yes, you read that right: Signet has a 100% customer retention rate. "The more disciplines we provide for clients, the harder it is for them to move us out," says David Tate, president of Signet. "We've grown by saying ‘yes' and clients rely on us."

No doubt, with its 50,000-square-foot facility, Signet screams of unconventionality, enjoying advantages many other firms don't have. But if you think the company uses its enormous space to simply warehouse products and fulfill orders, you'd be mistaken. "We actually specialize in company stores," Tate says. "We also develop websites, manage inventory, kit and collate, and provide event support."

It's that last service – event support – that really sets Signet apart. "We do a lot of special handling and it's not really normal, but our customers love us for it," Tate says. "It's one of the most complex things we do." Over the years, Signet and its staff of 50 employees have helped create trade show booths, overseen quality control of VIP memorabilia and even cleaned and mended mascot uniforms. Still, nothing quite compares to its work for a large electric and mechanics manufacturer. "This was definitely our most unusual project," Tate says.

Data PointsUnusual, indeed, but pretty entertaining in the end. Signet coordinated the purchase of two Hummers, then custom-wrapped them, outfitted the vehicles with satellite phones and stocked the interiors with promotional products, kits and literature. The client's salespeople then drove the Hummers from city to city, visiting their own customers, with Signet responsible for vehicle hand-offs, maintenance and the replenishment of materials. "This was a huge stretch for us," Tate says, "but we do every value-added service for this company. Once organized, it ended up not being that much of a stretch."

At the close of the year-long project, Signet "unwrapped" the Hummers and recommended to its client a car dealership that might buy the vehicles. "They ended up in our parking lot for about three weeks and our staff had fun driving them," Tate says.

The New Normal
While Tate believes his company's outside-the-box, do-anything approach is a bit unorthodox, it's actually part of the new normal in the ad specialty industry and the world of marketing. Clients simply expect more than branded products and prefer a one-stop solution for entire projects, rather than a jigsaw puzzle of different companies handling concepts, merchandising, service and execution. "There is a consolidation, I think, and that's why strategy is so important," says Les Loggins, a Florida-based PR and advertising consultant. "Small businesses especially are looking for marketing guides. If you don't adapt, you'll go away."

Increasingly, in fact, distributors find themselves facing this give-me-more reality every day. Over the past six years, State of the Industry research shows that the percentage of distributors who have clients asking for extra services has jumped from 36% in 2005 to 59% in 2011. But, demonstrating their flexibility and skill, distributors also now report that, on average, just 64% of their total annual revenues come from promotional products, the lowest figure since 2001. "During the recession, we saw a bit of a slowdown, but our value-added services grew," says Tate, "and we continue to see lots of activity. About 85% of our business is in contract accounts and, of that business, 50% of the volume is e-commerce."

Of course, Internet-driven work is just one of several distributor-offered added services that are becoming popular. For example, Dallas-based firm The Odee Company (asi/286900) has carved a niche in north Texas by cross-selling promotional products and print services. "Some people think printing is a dying industry, but I think it's going up," says Travis Stein, principle partner at Odee. "We do letterpress, foil stamping, embossing and die-cutting all in-house."

With an array of high-speed copiers, as well as off-set and digital presses, Odee can handle much more than just on-demand print jobs. Stein often tries to create promotional packages that incorporate different media. In one case, Odee designed a self-promotion box for a client that was trying to convince prospects to stop juggling vendors. The box featured images from a three-ring circus and included custom juggling balls and a personalized card.

"It was a really sharp piece, and each card invited the recipient to go to a website," says Stein. "When a person went to the link, a call center was notified and they could immediately follow up with that prospect."

Like Stein, Paxton Galvanek excels at teaming technology with creativity to impress clients. His firm, Galvanek & Wahl Advertising (asi/201316), is one of only a handful of full-service ad agencies that's connected to the ASI market.

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