Customer Service in Real Time

I love my clients. I mean it. There's not one for whom I wouldn't turn cartwheels to please. But this past week was a true test of my cartwheel skills. It was a real-time eye opener that spoke volumes in support of the theory that we're about to enter an age of customers who expect needs to be met instantaneously.

While I've discussed in previous columns the real-time paradigm and how I expect it to impact printers, this one is from a vendor's point of view, one who works with printers.

Approximately 60 percent of my clients are printers and allied graphic arts companies with whom we have annual agreements. The other 40 percent are primarily professional services companies, also under annual contracts. In one week my cartwheel skills were sorely tested, as nearly every one of my clients needed on-demand services above and beyond our contracted program. Here's a quick run-down:

  • One printer client had just cut a deal with a paper company to run a big job with national distribution for a VIP customer, and wanted to quickly leverage the coup to his advantage in the local market.
  • Another printer needed immediate writing and distribution of an email invite and press release announcing an impromptu evening for designers, featuring a renowned guest speaker from a prestigious paper company.
  • The call from another printer sent pre-determined production schedules into chaos when he announced he needed a new direct mail program, including list purchase, concept and designs, completed within the week.
  • Another client called to tell us he'd just been handed all the customers of a competing engraving business, and wanted to show his appreciation with an event showcasing the superior work over four decades of his benefactors, and to ease any concerns the customers might have as a result of the transition.
  • Before we could come up for air, we had a drop-in visit on Friday from a graphic arts teaching institute, asking us to review the organization's marketing materials and strategy for discussion the following Friday.

These jump-through-hoops demands were just from my printing clients. Two other clients were asking for equal attention.

On Monday of that same week, we got a call from our law firm client who wanted us to handle print production of the 2001 edition of his book; news that came after we'd just completed the incredibly complicated budget and proposal for next year's agreement.

We'd prescheduled a meeting on Tuesday that week with another client, a corporate benefits consultancy. The purpose of the meeting was to proactively cancel our existing publicity agreement, since we were unable to move projects forward, due to management's inaccessibility. We walked out of the meeting not with what we'd expected. Instead of a cancelled contract, we were asked to propose an integrated marketing program (the client's words, not mine) that incorporates an interactive Website with customer feedback programs.

So in the space of five days, we were asked to turn on a dime, not only with unexpected additional work demands, but with the tasks of getting new quotes and preparing new budgets and proposals.

Service Is A Speed and Response Business

Thank you, Regis McKenna, for reminding me. The week recounted above came and went, with my little company turning cartwheels to make my wonderful clients happy. We did. We brought in design teams, brainstormed, strategized, researched, interviewed, wrote copy points and designed sets of comps, orchestrated and coordinated. We stayed up nights completing budgets and proposals. In the end we delivered; we were even praised by one client for being so responsive and "professional."

Believe me, this is not meant to be an "aren't we great" pat on the back. If my company had three weeks running of similar on-demand performance requirements, we'd be hard-pressed to meet the challenge. But you can be sure the week pushed me to seriously look at staffing and scheduling to be better prepared for the next time, which I'm sure won't be far off.

McKenna, in his groundbreaking 1997 book Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer, predicted that the pace of change in the Information Age will beget a new breed of customer. They will be ever-demanding and expecting us to know exactly what they want, when they want it, and how they want to get it. He points to ATMs, self-service gas stations, and the growing trend in manufacturing to allow customers to custom-build their own cars, computers and homes.

When I ask clients to tell me what distinguishes their company from competitors, "great service" is the invariable reply. (We all know price, quality and turnaround are now givens for customers.) When I then ask how they define great service, I'm given terms like responsive, 24/7 accessible, customer-centric, solutions-driven, etc. But when I drill down to explore how they know they provide such great customer service, I'm shown customer testimonials. While these endorsements may be perfectly acceptable marketing tools, they are not measuring instruments. They belong to an earlier age of gauging customer service, when a good finished product equaled good service.

Those days are gone. Companies will require a far more sophisticated and interrelated customer service construct, one that includes continuous feedback loops with customers. It will require up-to-the-minute customer pulse-taking, up to the point where we'll be able to tell customers what they need before they know they need it.

Forget Brand Loyalty

Increasingly, brand loyalty will be built on experience, not on graphics or advertising hype. Tomorrow's customers will switch brands with the blink of an eye, putting great pressure on business and marketing managers to devise new ways of attracting and, more importantly, holding onto customers. This will entail much greater attention to customer service and "pull" communications, enabling customers to easily and immediately communicate in real-time.

McKenna suggests that "interactive information technology will become the next major investment for the enterprise, giving consumers the power to choose and shape brand relationships with suppliers." He believes customer loyalty will necessitate on-going real-time dialogue with customers. Assuming this is true, we might want to rethink our sales and customer service structures. Many companies assign sales reps according to geographical territories, rather than industry. While this may make sense in terms of travel time and expense, it might not allow reps the opportunity to fully understand a customer's business. To address this, many companies have gone to a team model, where CSRs, sales and technical staff work together on specific accounts, with more in-depth knowledge of clients and someone always available to the customer the obvious advantages.

Managers should also enact programs that educate these teams about the customers they service. We should examine and implement every way possible to encourage dialogue with our customers, focusing on interactive mechanisms like email-to-Website campaigns. We're exploring a monthly Webcast program for one client to take the place of focus groups.

In addition to digitally inspired feedback modes, there are face-to-face and, in many cases, more effective modes of obtaining customer feedback. One-to-one executive interviews, facilitated dinner meetings, roundtable discussions, and seminars are growing in popularity with marketing managers.

If the pundits who point to a breed of never-satisfied customer are correct-and, in my mind, last week certainly supports a trend in that direction-fast quotes, quick turnarounds and competitive prices aren't going to cut it. We'll have to be so on top of our customers' needs, we'll have pre-scheduled all those unanticipated interruptions.

Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte

© 2001 Charlotte Mills Seligman

February 21, 2001
Print & Graphics
Col#23, 4/01
Printing Journal
Col#23, 4/01
Service In Real Time
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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