The Need for Speed

Are You Ready To Provide Service At Warp Speed?

StopwatchWhen it comes to providing customer service, distributors today need to be fast nimble and flexible. Are you ready to provide service at warp speed?

Speed. Information travels today at a pace that has never been seen before.

Nothing happens slowly, because, well, practically everybody is always connected – to e-mail, the Internet and social networks. And, with that quickened exchange of information comes heightened expectations from customers about the speed with which they expect their vendors to get back to them.

Now that just about every American spends his day checking Twitter feeds or Facebook posts in real time, consumers have become accustomed to swift feedback, rapid-fire commentary and general response times bordering on instantaneous. Naturally, the expectation for fast communication is spilling over into every aspect of our lives, including the office, where customer service is being demanded at lightning speed.

And distributors would be wise to quicken their pace. According to a 2012 survey by RightNow Technologies, a cloud solutions company owned by Redwood Shores, CA-based Oracle, 89% of consumers move to a competitor after a poor customer service experience.

It's an incredibly high number, one born from a couple of places: The knowledge that there's always another vendor who can provide the product or service, as well as the reality that customer service expectations have changed. That stark reality isn't just applicable in the retail and consumer-buying arenas – in today's highly competitive promotional products marketplace, distributors are seeing the need for quicker response times as well, and they're acting accordingly to remain competitive.

"Service is a true differentiator in the marketplace," says Mark Ziskind, chief operating officer of Top 40 distributor firm CSE (asi/155807), based in New Berlin, WI. "A lot of people talk about it, but you actually have to provide it."

How, exactly? Below we highlight a few ways in which experts and distributors say others in the ad specialty market can provide customer service at warp speed.

Race the Clock
Every time a customer calls Ziskind's company – with a complaint, question or otherwise – the clock starts. For the next 90 minutes it counts down until someone from CSE returns the client's call, either with an answer or a response saying, "we're working on it."

Yes, doing so provides timely customer service and builds rapport with customers, which is the company's ultimate goal, Ziskind says. But Ziskind also knows that the faster his employees respond, the more likely they are to win over clients and prospects. In today's marketplace, distributors are realizing that customer service is the key to being competitive, and the best way to differentiate themselves is through the fastest customer service response they can find.

To that end, the company also has policies such as "in by four, out the door," meaning that all orders received by 4 p.m. are shipped the same day. And all complaints, regardless of their nature, are resolved in 24 hours. Part of that comes from allowing the company's customer service managers to make spot decisions on certain orders.

"If someone calls up and says, ‘We got three cracked mugs out of 12,' we don't argue," Ziskind says. "We ship them new mugs, no questions asked. We try to emulate Nordstrom and Ritz-Carlton in the way we provide customer service." Meaning: The customer is always right, and the faster we can acknowledge that and figure out a way to appease them, the better off we'll be in the end.

That kind of speed certainly makes a difference, says Jordy Gamson, president and CEO of The Icebox (asi/229395), a distributor based in Atlanta. And, it's not just when servicing current clients, but in how you respond to potential customers during the beginning of the sales process.

"Often I'll take initial calls from prospects, and I've asked them, ‘I know that when we spoke on the phone you were talking to two or three other companies. How come you used us?'" Gamson says. "A lot of times, they'll say ‘because you were the first to call me back.'"

Get Nosy
For the most part, distributors we talked to aren't using social media for much more than a general connection or mild branding effort among their client base. They're missing out, say experts, who insist that social media can be a rich customer service tool – especially when you're looking to speed up your offerings.

If nothing else, social media, Twitter especially, can give distributors a window into their clients' needs and concerns. "If you follow all of your customers, then you can track what they're saying, thinking and feeling," says Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Media, a social media marketing firm based in New York.

More to the point, a recent survey by global management consulting firm Bain & Company, based in Boston, found that customers who engage with companies via social media are much more likely to do business with them – 20% to 40% more – than they are with companies they're not connected to with social media.

At a minimum, distributors should input search terms into social media outlets like Twitter. "If you're using Twitter and searching for the term ‘marketing promotion' in your town, then you can see when somebody says, ‘I really need a good idea for a marketing promotion,'" Kerpen says, "and have ideas right there in an instant and potentially win the business."

But Kerpen and others say social media can be leveraged for much more, and that distributors should make it a goal to follow or friend every client they have. "If you're following a customer and the customer tweets, ‘I've had the worst day ever,' regardless of how your business may be going with that particular client, you can tweet back, ‘Sorry you had a rough day. I sent you a surprise. Be on the lookout for it,' and send them a sample or other promotional item to let them know you're thinking about them," Kerpen says. "If I got that, with that kind of responsiveness, I would want to do business with that person for the rest of my life."

As social media grows in popularity and daily use, small-business owners who aren't taking advantage of its benefits are making themselves less competitive, say experts. Simply listening to client tweets "can absolutely be used as a competitive advantage in terms of customer service opportunities," Kerpen says.

Be Proactive
Rather than funnel top clients through the company's standard call-answering system, Match-Up Promotions (asi/264230), based in Longwood, FL, provides them with a dedicated toll-free number so that big clients get faster customer service. With the dedicated line, customers get answers to questions in seconds and they speak with live call agents whenever possible. For those accounts "it's our job if they have a question to get back to them immediately," says Adam Thornton, the company's president.

In fact, experts say, the key to fast customer service today is to actually anticipate clients' needs before they happen. Companies like SmartAction, a company that provides hosted speech services for call centers, based in El Segundo, CA, are doing that by creating artificial intelligence outbound calling systems that track, anticipate and manage customer needs almost faster than the customer recognizes them, says Peter Voss, SmartAction's CEO.

For example, his company's services allow small-business owners to instantly call back clients whose calls were dropped, or alert clients on the status of shipments before the client has a chance to check themselves. Many of today's automated phone systems, which in SmartAction's case involve a computer system that understands language, including complicated order requests, can track customer calls and cross check them with, say, shipments. "Our system keeps track of previous phone calls, whether they were five minutes ago, a day ago or a week ago," Voss says.

Clients who call in, then, can be recognized and updated about an order's status before they ask. Or, the system can proactively call them with order updates. Many client issues are resolved in three minutes, on average, compared to the typical six minutes it takes for a person to handle similar order changes, according to tracking conducted by SmartAction, cutting a company's potential call time in half, and making a company more productive by freeing up call center staff members for other tasks.

The real advantage, though, Voss says, is the system's advanced language capabilities, which essentially allow round-the-clock, sophisticated customer service for clients, without having to pay people to man the phones.

Help Clients Help Themselves
Occasionally a customer service issue is so huge that even the best response teams can't help. The Icebox had an instance recently in which it completed an order for a loyal client who needed uniforms early for a soft opening at one of its stores. The Icebox filled the order and sent it on its way, including a shipping notification from FedEx once the product had left its offices.

Then … nothing. The soft opening happened and not a word from the distributor's clients. Then suddenly a panicked phone call was placed letting The Icebox staff know that the actual store opening was about to happen and the uniforms had never been received, says Gamson. When Gamson checked with FedEx, it took the shipping giant some time to figure out where the uniforms had disappeared to. Eventually Gamson got word: The FedEx truck on which they'd been placed "had caught on fire and burned to a crisp on the side of the road," Gamson says.

It turns out that "there's no protocol for FedEx when trucks catch on fire and burn to the ground," Gamson says. "They don't automatically call you and say, 'Those goods aren't going to make it.' And you can't provide customer service for a problem you don't know exists."

For The Icebox's clients, having products caught up because of a truck crash is an uncontrollable ordering snafu. But what Gamson realized in that moment was that sometimes distributors have to rely on clients to alert them to customer service issues as soon as they happen, rather than sitting on the problem and allowing it to fester. Encouraging customers to speak up immediately when they notice a problem can go a long way toward helping distributors actually fix the issue before it gets worse.

In that sense, sometimes fast customer service happens when clients can find the solutions on their own. Not that self-help Web tools would necessarily have helped The Icebox's customer in that instance, but companies that provide problem-solving technology for clients are more likely to create customer loyalty, experts insist.

Particularly for less complicated customer service issues, such as requesting additional proofs or samples or billing questions, distributors could utilize online guides that customers could tap into instantly to solve their problems without ever needing to contact a live person, says Stefanie Amini, marketing director for WalkMe, a company that simplifies user experiences on websites.

Survey in Seconds
Part of this kind of self-help approach and immediate notification of problems can be enhanced with frequent customer surveys. Order an item from CSE and seven days later you'll get a survey with just six questions – about quality, selection, timeliness of delivery, order handling, website experience and packaging. Keeping the questions short helps the company get up to a 29% response rate, says Ziskind. "If you don't measure, you can't improve upon it," he says.

And in today's world of instant communications, surveys can go out even faster, says J.D. Peterson, vice president of marketing for San Francisco-based Zendesk, a customer service software company. "We know that 55% of consumers expect a same-day response when they make a complaint through social media," Peterson says.

Darren Bosik, senior methodologist at QuestBack, an enterprise feedback management solutions company in Bridgeport, CT, says distributors can respond instantly through social media. Should a client send out a disgruntled tweet about a recent order, for example, a distributor could immediately respond with a two- or three-question survey specific to what the client just tweeted, Bosik says.

That's the kind of responsiveness that customers are expecting in today's market, Bosik adds. And reacting in real time helps companies become more responsive.

"You can go a step further," he says, "and integrate that tweet into your company's CRM system."

Ultimately, the key to great customer service is to become empathetic about what the customer is going through – essentially, being able to put yourself in their shoes, experts say.

At CSE, Ziskind says, "the way we look at customer service is this: You handle every order like it's for your mother."– E-mail: