Service With A Smile

Rare is the printer who doesn't tout customer service as its claim to fame, its differentiating factor. Also rare is the printer who can substantiate the claim, or who successfully promotes customer service.

Over the past several years, customer service has taken on new importance. At the end of the last holiday season, reports spilled out of the labs that sales were stymied as customers were increasingly angered over companies' inability to deliver product and to address customer complaints. All of a sudden, the spotlight shifted from front-end, online ordering to back-end customer support.

Gone are the days when customer service simply meant a pleasant smile and a cheerful personality. It has become fundamental to the 1:1 marketing paradigm, and now involves far more critical responsibilities than before. In the past, CSRs were often assigned house accounts to manage and rarely, if ever, visited customers. As new team models evolved, CSRs participated more in active selling, sometimes even qualifying and initiating contact with prospects.

New Name, New Responsibilites

As the distinction between sales and customer service blurs, names and duties become interchangeable. Several clients have placed CSRs in equal position to sales reps, calling them either account representatives or account managers, titles that are familiar to advertising and marcom buyers' organizations. Regardless of what title is conferred upon them, CSRs have taken on awesome responsibilities in today's printing environment. They provide information and manage a multi-directional communications channel, often at critical moments, when changes must be made in a printing job or when plans have gone awry.

This involves not only a high order of skill in dealing with people when they are at their most anxious, but also considerable technical knowledge, especially in today's fast-moving and technologically complex printing environment. As printing companies more often provide a range of expanded services-file transmission, asset management and cross-media publishing to mention just a few-the requirement that the CSR be well-informed about diverse matters increases exponentially.

When outcomes are not to a customer's liking, the CSR's routine communication skills become critical. Handling such moments well is often the difference between an unhappy customer and one who feels that a difficult problem, if not solved, has at least been taken seriously and given due attention.

Heroics That Deserve Attention

In those companies that can honestly toot their customer service horn, CSR heroics are commonplace. However, those same companies fail to take advantage of this fact and effectively communicate their service capabilities. Instead, they rely on the "we have great customer service" mantra, which means nothing except that they're supposedly just like all the other printers out there.

Remember, actions speak louder than words. Make sure your customers find out about those occasions when your CSR saved the day for another customer. Let the marketplace know about, not just mention, how valuable your CSR's technical skills are to customers.

Here are some ideas to market the substance of a customer service program. These can be incorporated into one or more pieces of a marketing communications package, from the most ambitious to the simplest-ads, brochures, newsletters, an anecdotal postcard series, email on the internet, a web site.

1. Every segment of the printing industry has it own unique customer service requirements. A customer service program for a stationery printer might go something like this:
Boss of the brand. Nowhere is customer service understood better than at Letterhead Pros, specialists in brand management. Working against seemingly impossible deadlines to turn around reprints of business cards and letterhead, highly trained CSRs not only manage online file transfers, but they also make sure all incoming and outgoing artwork meets corporate branding standards. Their work entails constant communication-both online and offline-with customers and designers of corporate identity systems, ensuring color and production accuracy from the outset of design throughout the lifetime of the brand.

2. Nothing is more persuasive to a customer than other happy customers. That's why endorsements are used in ads to sell everything from used cars to toothpaste. Whenever possible, report dramatic case studies and identify the customer. There is hardly a more effective form of marketing communication than a case study involving a high-profile customer for whom the day was saved by an effective CSR.

3. Describe how your customer service program is set up, and how the arrangement benefits customers. Emphasize the close working relationship between the CSR and customers, featuring instances when they've provided innovative solutions to thorny production issues. If CSRs works as a team with, say, a sales rep and a prepress technician, describe how the team worked together to the benefit of a customer.

4. Launch a campaign featuring your communications capabilities, and how CSRs are the conduit for clear, concise communications between the plant and the customer. You could give specific examples of miscommunication that occurred and ways your CSRs surmounted the negative anger and confusion that resulted.

Position your CSRs as the customer's special advocate, working hand in hand with sales reps, management and technical crew to make sure your customers' needs are met. Keep your CSRs well-informed about changing production and technological capabilities. You can tout their training in marketing materials.

On occasion, circumstances that involve CSRs provide justification for coverage of your company in trade publications that use case studies as features, or equipment manufacturers who feature customer testimonials.

In short, a successful customer service program can provide the foundation for a very successful marketing campaign. But it must be specific and professional. Don't use meaningless platitudes and hyperbole. The goal is to increase customer and prospect confidence in the reliability of your operations.

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

July 2001
Print & Graphics
Col#28, 7/01
Printing Journal
Col#28, 7/01
Service With A Smile
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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