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How can distributors capitalize on customer service trends to stand out from the competition?

Customer Service TrendsHow can distributors capitalize on customer service trends to stand out from the competition? We asked business experts for their advice.

In a market where every company can sell just about the same menu of products, what separates the successes from the also-rans? Indeed, the promotional products market is filled with distributor firms that all have access to similar product choices. In such a business climate, finding a point of differentiation among competitors often comes down to customer service.

What do you offer to clients that the guy down the street can’t?

If you can’t answer that question – and maybe more importantly, if your customers can’t answer that question – then you’re in for a difficult ride. Because, business experts say, clients will be most loyal to the companies that provide the best and most reliable service.

Counselor recently talked to a variety of management consultants and experts who insisted that, more than anything, the key to market strength in 2015 will lie in innovative customer engagement.

Tech Advancements
Frequently, the effort to differentiate from the competition with customer service initiatives starts with technology. Part of the problem with today’s customer service is that companies (and distributorships are no exception) have been whittled down considerably in the post-recession economy to a point where they’re running on limited resources, so they are forced to spend more time putting out fires rather than proactively engaging customers, says Iwan Jenkins, president of The Riot Point Research Corporation, a customer experience research firm based in Toronto.

Yet that’s in complete opposition to what clients want, according to recent research. By 2020, half of business-to-business customers are expected to say that the client experience trumps product and price in terms of brand strength, up from 43% who say it’s the most important differentiator today, according to a 2014 survey by customer intelligence consulting firm Walker Information Inc. Most business owners, though, aren’t responding to that call. And ad specialty companies who feel compelled to slash prices in order to remain competitive would be better served by boosting customer service responses.

Think customer relations management software is going to cut it moving forward? That won’t be enough. While CRM programs can offer robust customer service support, distributors will need to adopt more progressive techniques to separate themselves from the pack within the promotional product marketplace in 2015. In fact, distributorships that rely on the usual calendar reminders and traditional client-focused software programs will find themselves lagging behind.

Instead, they’ll need to adopt more unique tools to gain the trust and loyalty of clients. That might include real-time customer service offerings, using tools that allow companies to be more agile in and out of the office. That’s appearing more and more in the form of wearable technology, which can allow salespeople and customer service reps to be more responsive to clients. Distributors running late to a meeting early in the day, for example, can use wearable technology (think GPS-driven watches) to instantly shift all of their appointments for the rest of the day, alerting clients instantly of scheduling changes, says Mike Karlskind, vice president of product marketing for ClickSoftware, a workforce management software company based in Burlington, MA.

That same technology, Karlskind says, can help distributors rework shift schedules, boosting production capabilities on the fly by recognizing shipping or production issues before they happen by constantly tracking employee skills, preferences and talents. When bottlenecks arise, they can change them right then and there using technology an employee is always wearing.

The technology, which costs about $200 per device, can also react swiftly to update customers on orders, as well as track where sales reps are via GPS, so “when they walk in the door of a prospect or client, the company can send information that’s relevant to that customer” via the rep’s watch or other device, says Karlskind.

Necessarily Flexible
Being that attentive to customer schedules and needs and being agile enough to respond immediately to them will be more crucial than ever in 2015, experts say. One way to do that is to leverage social media to be as responsive as possible, says Richard Shapiro, president of The Center for Client Retention, a customer service consultancy based in Berkeley Heights, NJ.

The key, Shapiro says, is to not only respond quickly  (within hours, if possible) whenever a client posts a negative comment on Facebook, Twitter or another site, but to do so in a way that’s not defensive. Negative comments, he says, are actually another opportunity to engage a client by offering to call them or have them call you immediately to resolve or discuss the issue further. Evidence of being willing to negotiate or discuss the client’s concern will say a lot to future prospects reading the comment threads.

When it comes to social media and other online forums, business-to-business reputations and relationships are often more vulnerable to attack than in the consumer marketplace, says Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group, a customer experience consultancy in Hackensack, NJ.  

“If I post a negative comment about Colgate because I don’t like their toothpaste, they can send me a coupon,” Arussy says. “But if I damage the reputation of a business-to-business organization with an average order size of $10,000 or $500,000, that’s a bigger risk.”

The problem, he says, is that b2b companies are often slow to realize the customer service damage – and ultimately, reputation damage – that can result from a few random insults. For distributors, he says, it’s important to do the social media math, so to speak.

“It’s not about the number of comments,” Arussy says. The damage to – or boost of – a company’s reputation via social media is much more compounded than it is in relation to consumer-based companies. “It’s the number of comments times the annual value of a customer,” he says. “Colgate may get 100 comments” on a $5 tube of toothpaste. “That’s $500.”

A distributor may get two comments on orders totaling $10,000 apiece. “Now you’re at $20,000 worth of potential business losses,” he says. “So the sensitivity to each customer needs to be much greater.” Arussy suggests that companies prominently display toll-free numbers and invite customers to call them, as well as empower the first point of contact (i.e. the initial customer service rep) to make as many customer decisions as possible to resolve disputes more quickly.

The Need for Speedy Response
To be more responsive – and to respond quicker – Shapiro suggests that distributors consider online chat experts so that prospects and current customers can access help through an additional channel. And, he adds, chat experts should be divided into just that – experts who are available to answer questions and offer advice on specific products, industries and other areas of expertise.

“Chat is something that’s more and more prevalent on a lot of websites,” Shapiro says. Some companies, he adds, will offer pictures of staff experts along with a mini bio about their expertise. “If you want someone who’s an expert on putting logos on apparel, you chat with someone who has that background, because that’s different than putting a logo on a pen,” Shapiro says.

In other cases, distributors would be wise to offer reconnections via chat with team members who handled a specific customer’s last order. Either way, “that customer pre-selection tool,” in which clients have control over who they talk to and why, “helps to build relationships immediately,” Shapiro adds.

Business-to-business transactions and sales relationships, especially, have the ability to leverage client relationships in this way, Shapiro says, because companies “already have some sort of proactive outreach to your regular customers.” By following a more strategic approach to customer interactivity in 2015, he adds, distributors can siphon away more and more orders from existing clients.

“You as the distributor might have $20,000 worth of business” from a particular client, Shapiro says. “But maybe this company is really spending $100 million on promotional products. By nurturing this relationship you can get more of that pie.” Building more intimate, specific customer-centric interactions is the key to making that happen.

Rx for Problem-Solving
Sometimes, no matter how effective the technology or the follow-through, companies run into issues and errors that need fixing – quickly and honestly. Arussy says that companies that are more aggressive in fixing issues – and going the extra mile to do so – in business today will curry more client favor. But it’s important to recognize which fixes are effective.

For example, distributors who offer to waive shipping fees to appease a marketing assistant calling about a late shipment should realize that has almost no effect, since that does little to alleviate the wrath that may be brought on that employee who is likely being held accountable for the products ordered. Instead, Arussy suggests, distributors should take a more proactive approach in their customer service strategies by offering to call the contact’s boss, clients and anyone else who may be affected by the late shipment and apologize, offer to remedy the situation and be accountable for what went wrong.

That may require coordinated efforts between front-line reps and back-end sales teams. But that’s the key to better customer service management in 2015, says Meredith Flynn-Ripley, CEO of HeyWire Business, a mobile messaging company based in Cambridge, MA. Flynn-Ripley says companies that are expecting to be successful with customer service in 2015 have already started to recognize the latest changes in how the next generation of clients wants to communicate. For some that means by text, rather than by phone, email or fax, says Flynn-Ripley, whose company platform serves half a billion messages a month.

The numbers are certainly heading in this direction, and the companies that can adapt quickest will win over the loyalty of a new breed of client. In fact, 67% of workers are using text messaging in a business setting, according to a 2014 HeyWire survey, with 52% saying they prefer text over any other communication tool.

“It’s clear today that more and more people prefer to text than call,” Flynn-Ripley says. And that enhances customer service, she adds, since it eliminates the possibility of being put on hold or dropped into a service queue when texting with a live customer service agent. Companies such as HeyWire charge $20 a month for the service and 2 cents a message.

All of this speaks to faster, more responsive communication, the key to cutting-edge customer service in the year ahead, experts insist. Truly progressive companies will not only offer customer service via text in 2015 but will proactively contact their top clients that way, says Tara Kelly, CEO of SPLICE Software, a customer service software company in Chicago.

Automated texts, Kelly says, will be the key to constant contact between top-performing businesses and their clients. Companies like SPLICE offer automated messaging services that can contact clients about virtually any subject in a series of prerecorded messages created by your own sales team or executives, essentially a company’s own “voice library.”

Say a distributor finds out a shipment of mugs is suddenly delayed, he could send a series of messages in his own voice to client contacts who are effected and offer live follow up through the message. That saves time for the distributor, rather than making a series of calls to explain the problem to each contact. It also establishes a level of accountability with customers that builds loyalty and confidence.

Plus, Kelly says, the added feature of being able to call the distributor back for a live conversation if need be, gives clients comfort that they’re not only informed about the latest developments in their order, but that they’re fully supported with live help if need be.

– Email: betsycummings23@gmail.com

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