What does it take to win and keep customers? These 10 supplier companies undoubtedly have what it takes—and then they go beyond expectations. That’s the winning element.
Many companies strive for great customer service but only 10 are selected by PPAI distributors each year for delivering the ultimate in service. Those companies are recognized with the coveted PPAI Supplier Star Award. We asked this year’s winners to tell us what makes their customer service practices so remarkable and memorable.
Admints & Zagabor, Three-Time Winner
Bellmawr, New Jersey
Category: $1,000,001 – $2,500,000, UPIC: AD-MINTS
Admints is in the ‘yes’ business, says Brett Hersch, president. The best way to maintain long-term relationships with clients is to provide consistently good service from the moment an order is placed to the moment the product reaches the distributor’s hands. Maintaining consistency in the creation and delivery of a quality product is the core of good customer service, and Hersch shares some key points in how that process is best maintained.
Appreciation is key; so is a good attitude.
“In every communication with our customers, from orders to shipping, we always make sure we let them know we appreciate their business. We make sure [customer service staff] has a positive, upbeat attitude on the phone, and make sure they thank them for the opportunity to serve them.”
Good communication and prompt response lead to happy clients.
“Communication is the most important thing. We want to make sure in every order that the end user is happy, which makes our distributors happy. If there’s ever a problem we make sure we respond immediately.”
The secret to longevity is simple.
Hersch’s advice to young suppliers who want to build longevity and relationships is this: “Ship a quality product and ship it on time. Everything past that is a bonus.”
An Admints Moment Of Greatness
“Earlier this year, we had a big order and the client changed the in-hands date on the distributor. It was for a big event that was being held an hour and a half from our factory, so one of our staff members hand- delivered it directly to the end user. This way the distributor wouldn’t have to incur extra shipping charges. That’s how we get the loyalty—we’re in the ‘yes’ business.” —Brett Hersch
Beacon Promotions, Inc., Two-Time Winner
New Ulm, Minnesota
Category: $10,000,001 – $15,000,000, UPIC: BEACONP
At Beacon Promotions, good customer service is a careful blend of people and product power. For this award winner, good customer service isn’t much without a quality product and a current catalog with which to serve customers. For Gary Haley, senior vice president of sales, the Supplier Star Award reflects this holistic approach to business.
Great customer service isn’t much without product and performance.
“To give our distributors a chance to perform for their customers … it takes more than a friendly voice on the phone. You need to have a clear and concise catalog. Our inventory needs to be reliable, we need to communicate well between the office and the factory, and all this needs to be a habit. All these need to happen in a finely tuned way.”
To ensure success from beginning to end, keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.
“We proofread the order when it comes in, then a separate person proofs the ad copy. On large orders we make sure to check again after all the documentation and printing plates are done. Some people might say that’s a lot of activity around one order, but that’s what we do.”
Let the distributor get to know you—all of you.
“So many of our customers know so many of our people. There’s a lot of interface; the more contacts our customers can make inside the organization, the better we’ll be.”
A Beacon Moment Of Greatness
“Last summer an order left the plant and was sitting on the truck, and the distributor called and requested the order be pulled, so we pulled it off the truck, redid it and replaced it the next day. We don’t approach our business from the ‘this is a challenging day’ perspective. We look at it as ‘this is what we do.’ Our customers don’t wake up one morning and decide to call us; they’re responding to their customer.” —Gary Haley
Gold Bond, Inc., Eight-Time Winner
Category: $20,000,001 – $50,000,000, UPIC: GOLD0008
Keeping Gold Bond’s customer service top-notch is a crucial step in maintaining strong relationships with distributor clients. President Mark Godsey says listening to clients and staying on the cutting edge of what the customer wants is helpful, too.
Every employee’s performance matters.
“To put it simply, we have great people. Each employee understands that his or her job affects how our customers perceive us. Our management team does an outstanding job of setting high standards and ensuring our people are reaching the mark. Managers work with employees on a daily basis to ensure the staff is always helpful, courteous, knowledgeable and delivers a product that satisfies our distributors’ end users.”
Train to be the best.
“We value training and understand the importance of putting well-trained employees on the phone. Our customer service staff participates in ongoing training through service evaluations, product knowledge, imprint methods and order facilitation. The most effective way to evaluate our service is feedback from our customers.”
Develop a goal and build toward it.
“Customer retention is priority No. 1. Our first mission was to deploy factory reps. We understood the costs associated with such a decision but knew that our customers needed personal attention to help them through these unprecedented times. This has proven to be a great strategy.”
A Gold Bond Moment Of Greatness
“An order of a large quantity of bottles was delayed due to art—no fault of our customer, but because of the time constraints for running the order it was going to miss the event. Our machines ran through three shifts straight to get it produced. We loaded eight pallets of bottles on our truck and drove 10 hours overnight to make the event the next morning. Was this one team member’s effort? No way. Our entire art, production and shipping teams and drivers made this happen.” —Mark Godsay
Journalbooks, a member of Polyconcept North America, First-Time Winner
Charlotte, North Carolina
Category: $15,000,001 – $20,000,000, UPIC: journals
At Journalbooks, excellent customer service is part of the fabric of the company, says Tim O’Boyle, general manager. “It is how we survived and prospered, and we never take it for granted.”
Make the whole experience memorable.
“The overall goal is that all of our customers are happy and satisfied with our products as well as with the entire purchasing experience.”
Invest in building a skilled staff.
“We have formal training when someone is hired and we have biweekly training meetings for customer service. I think part of our success is due to the fact that we use every mistake as a learning and coaching opportunity. We evaluate our company’s effectiveness with feedback from clients, customer surveys and industry-group ratings. And, one order at a time.”
Believe that there’s a solution to just about any challenge.
“One major challenge for us and most suppliers is dealing with unreasonable clients and with different personalities. I once learned the phrase, ‘Fix the person first, then fix the problem.’ Sometimes that’s not so easy, but listening to the entire situation is the first thing that is most important. You can’t offer solutions if the client is still upset. Even if it’s not our fault, we always try to partner to find a solution—and there almost always is a solution.”
A Journalbooks Moment Of Greatness
We recently produced a large order that had a lot of special packaging and fulfillment requirements, and due to a very picky end buyer with lots of last-minute changes, we had volunteers from all departments, and worked second-shift to make it happen. We had people from the art department, sales, order entry and even senior management help out. It was great team building and the customer was thrilled when we made the impossible happen. Going above and beyond in today’s world is usually part of the game.” —Tim O’Boyle
KoolPak, Four-Time Winner
Category: $500,001 – $1,000,000, UPIC: KOOLPAK
KoolPak believes in empowering its customer service team to exceed client expectations, says Yusef Guzman, vice president of operations. Continuously striving for better results is part of what drives the success of KoolPak and its recognition by distributors throughout the industry. “Never be complacent, always strive for improvement,” he says. “It’s not only the solution you offer but how you offer it.”
Know what the customer needs before the customer asks.
“A key challenge is anticipating our customers’ needs and being proactive instead of reactive. We realize our customers’ time is valuable and our goal is to be attentive and responsive to their needs, to consistently create a satisfying customer experience.”
Employ professionals who know the business inside and out.
“Our employees are extensively trained on our products, policies and procedures. We understand the key is continuing education and cross-training of all departments. Our customer service department is provided with weekly goals to strengthen customer service standards.”
Overcome unexpected setbacks one step at a time.
“We view an issue as an opportunity to take a negative customer service situation and turn it into a positive one. The first step is to understand the customer’s immediate concerns. The next step is to offer the best possible solutions, but only those that are achievable.”
A KoolPak Moment Of Greatness
“I have to be honest and admit that I am impressed on a daily basis by the tenacity of our customer service team. Recently the majority of our staff stayed after-hours to complete their daily responsibilities on a day where ‘busy’ was an understatement. One of our team members could not stay, but on her drive home she bought snacks for the rest of her team. Everyone’s faces lit up when she later walked through the door with her arms full. It helped everyone push through, and our customers’ needs were met with a smile and a mouth full of chocolate.” —Yusef Guzman
Leed’s, a member of Polyconcept North America, Two-Time Winner
New Kensington, Pennsylvania
Category: $50,000,001-plus, UPIC: LEEDS
Leed’s combines industry-leading service programs and great employees to offer exceptional customer service experiences, and “we hear again and again from our customers that the Leed’s team is the very best in the industry,” says Sam DiBiase, vice president of sales.
Understand the distributor’s needs and challenges.
“We focus on making sure all of our employees understand our customers, the distributors. We have produced videos at customer sites, invited customers to sit in on roundtable meetings and sent as many people as possible to tradeshows. Distributors do a tough job, and we work with our team to ensure they understand the distributors’ challenges so we can help them and make their lives easier.”
Employee insight can ensure a seamless customer service process.
“We listen to our employees. They know what works and what doesn’t within our company, and what process we can improve to make our jobs easier. That in turn allows us to better serve our customer. Hire great people, educate them and empower them.”
Look to your human resources to meet your goals.
“Our training department is comprised of functional experts who are focused on new-hire and ongoing training, ensuring our entire team is highly skilled. We have a special escalation team that is focused solely on making sure that, if we’ve made an error, we make it right in the eyes of our customers. Our primary goal is to be second to none—to set the industry’s standard for service.”
A Leed’s Moment Of Greatness
“We recognize every instance where a customer provides feedback about an employee who went above and beyond, and we hear daily from our customers about these instances. A recent example is a note we received that read: ‘[Leed’s employee] Courtney Davis made magic happen. You were snowed in and down and she still managed to get this order to ship on time … unbelievable service and follow-up. Thank you.’” —Sam DiBiase
Mid-Nite Snax®, Two-Time Winner
Mineola, New York
Category: $250,001 – $500,000, UPIC: midnite
For Jack Goldberg, owner and president, the success of Mid-Nite Snax lies in the belief that the supplier-distributor relationship is a partnership that focuses on education. This is crucial for a supplier that sells time-sensitive products such as food gifts, he says.
Resolve to evolve so you can keep up with client needs.
“The nature of our industry is ever-changing. Lead times have decreased from 10 working days down to two or three at times. We are constantly evolving and adapting to keep up with the needs of our customers. We do everything possible to manage the expectations of our customers.”
Educate clients so they can educate end users.
“We convey the necessary guidelines for our customers to follow in order to make quick turnarounds. A challenge we share with our distributors is getting end users to follow the same guidelines.”
Commit to the customer to enhance the experience.
“Our customer service team builds relationships with distributors while assisting them with needs. We do not view an order as just a sale, but as a commitment that they have placed their trust in us to provide fresh, high-quality products delivered when they need them.”
A Mid-Nite Snax Moment Of Greatness
“Recently we had a high-volume order in house and three days before it was due to be in-hands, we received a call from our supplier that they would not be able to fulfill the quantity needed. We had the entire staff research retail locations that might carry the product. Everyone teamed up and spent their weekend traveling from store to store, purchasing the necessary quantity, at retail cost, in order to satisfy our customer’s needs. Being able to come through for our customer was more important than whatever time or money might have been lost fulfilling the order. As long as it is in our power, we will never let our customers down.” —Jack Goldberg
Posh Xessories™ , First-Time Winner
Category: $50,000 – $250,000, UPIC: poshx
President David Zhu and his team at Posh Xessories know that distributors have plenty of choices in today’s marketplace, and one of the ways they can distinguish themselves is through outstanding customer service. “We understand that a satisfied cusomer will become a repeat customer, and from that a relationship is formed,” he says.
Develop a culture that fosters good customer service.
“I have attempted to develop a culture of communication, collaboration, problem-solving and respect. When this is being experienced, we can share it with our customers. It is, I believe, my job to keep our customer-service staff inspired, enthused and motivated to not only meet but exceed our customers’ expectations. This, as you can imagine, is not always easy, but it is required.”
To know what it takes, do what it takes—and take stock of feedback.
“I personally work in customer service from time to time to ensure that standards are being adhered to and procedures are followed. I also have third-party surveys being conducted on a continual basis to receive feedback. Most important, our customers provide us with feedback on our performance. We have created systems to monitor every order from the moment it is received until it is shipped; we have learned that strong follow-up and follow-through minimizes the chance of difficulties arising.”
A Posh Xessories Moment Of Greatness“Every day is filled with our staff doing above and beyond what is expected. One of our reminders to each other is ‘Always expect the unexpected’ and, interestingly enough, it always shows up.” —David Zhy
R.S. Owens & Co., Inc., First-Time Winner
Category: $2,500,001 – $5,000,000, UPIC: RSOWENS
In the competitive world of promotional products sales, Larry Maloney, vice president of marketing, says there’s a growing understanding that companies must “do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy.” At R.S. Owens, he says, they know what distributor clients need and understand the pressures they’re under, too. “It costs more to bring back a customer than to acquire one,” he says.
See your client in his natural habitat.
“We implemented an ‘Adopt A Distributor’ program, where employees are required to visit clients once each quarter. When you understand what their needs are, you can provide better service.”
Get inside the distributor’s head.
“You have to treat every call as your most important customer call. One challenge with customer service is that you’re the face of the company, and even if things are out of your control, you can’t fall back on that excuse. We have training and role-playing exercises where we ask customer service staff to be on the customer end of the call. We ask them to think about the best customer service experiences they had.”
Know what the left and right hand are doing.
“We put more system procedures in place where the factory and shipping department get reports. More departments downstream have gotten greater visibility. We try and proactively help the customer as well—we’ll call a customer if we haven’t received something. If something goes wrong, don’t come up with an excuse. Customers don’t care about excuses. Let them vent, then try and find if anything can be done to minimize the fallout.”
An R.S. Owens Moment Of Greatness
“We worked on a point-of-purchase display program where the client required a preproduction sample. Our rep drove to O’Hare International Airport at 8:30 at night to make sure it was delivered, and it resulted in closing a six-figure program.”
World Wide Lines, Inc.
Category: $5,000,001 – $10,000,000, UPIC: WORLDWID
President Kim Newell is proud of the creative environment that exists at World Wide Lines, but she knows that creativity is only appreciated when the customer service designed to deliver it is well received by clients. She relies on employees who have been working with promotional products distributors for several years, so they understand the needs of clients as well as the capabilities of World Wide Lines, and they are able to accommodate just about any request.
Go beyond the phone call to deliver good service.
“Our main objective is to listen to customers and to be diverse in what we offer, and to put their needs in front. But it’s not only about the phone call. It’s also about the quality of products and about building relationships and trust. We really go the extra step to get it done.”
Consistency in service builds long-term relationships.
“It comes down to being inside the industry for a long time, and taking the time to listen and understand. Our No. 1 goal is to take care of clients and build a partnership with them, along with putting out a quality product. You need to be consistent to build loyalty and trust.”
A World Wide Lines Moment Of Greatness
“We are a creative-based company and we think outside the box. I feel like with our work, ‘above and beyond’ is all the time with us. We have a lot of instances where we never say no, and I think that’s why customers come to us. They know they can turn to us [for a creative solution]. We’re the people who can ensure our customers look good to their customers.” —Kim Newell
Jen Alexander McCall is a former associate editor and former news editor for PPB.
Who’ll Be The Next PPAI Supplier Stars?
The PPAI Supplier Star Award is one of the most sought-after and prestigious awards because winners are selected by their customers. Distributors cast votes for the best suppliers in each of 10 sales volume categories based on excellent customer service, top-quality products and sales aids, and on-time delivery.
To be eligible for the award, a company must be a PPAI supplier member in good standing for a minimum of three years. Voting for the Supplier Star Award is open to all distributor principals and company personnel. Look for the 2011 voting ballot to be posted by mid-July by clicking on Members/Sales & Marketing/Industry Recognition at www.ppai.org.
What We Can Learn From Top Consumer Companies
Here’s a quick look at five companies that made BusinessWeek’s annual ranking of top companies for customer service along with a key element that helped them come out on top of the JD Powers survey:
Marriott International—Trained administrative assistants to double as banquet servers when the hotels are extra busy.
Charles Schwab—Initiated a “flex force” team of financial specialists and marketing managers to handle calls at the San Francisco headquarters on days when the market was experiencing frequent fluctuations.
Ace Hardware—Added longer evening and weekend hours to better serve customers.
Zappos—Provided free shipping and, for a time, upgraded to overnight shipping for repeat and first-time customers.
Amazon—Created a distinction between customer service and the customer’s experience; the customer experience focuses on having the lowest price and the fastest service among other attributes. The company saves true customer service for those unusual situations when problems arise.