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Better Customer Service = Loyal Retailers

10 ways vendors can improve their relations with retailers.

by Trish Hansen, MoonSong Design (January 16, 2006)

(Note: A recent issue of CLN included "How To Drive a Retailer Crazy," in which a scrapbook retail told a nightmarish tale caused by thoughtless, incompetent customer service she received from a vendor. To ready the original article, click on "Benny Da Buyer" and then the title in the right-hand column.)

I worked for close to a decade for a papercraft manufacturer whose first priority was always customer service. Orders were shipped quickly and accurately, questions were answered (and if need be, research was done to answer them correctly), telephone calls were ALWAYS returned, and errors were corrected at our expense, even if it cost us next-day-air shipping.

The company went through divorce, ownership changes, changes in direction, and company moves, but there was never a time that we allowed our primary focus to stray from the service we provided to our customers.

I assumed, of course, that this was standard; after all, there is a great deal of competition out there and customers who are not treated well can go elsewhere.

Holy Tamales! Was I in for a shock!

These days I'm an independent sales rep and I work part-time at the local papercraft store. I must say, I am routinely stunned by how carelessly many manufacturers treat their customers!

Prior to coming to the craft industry, I worked in travel and transportation for several years and other industries prior to that. You must trust me when I tell you that elsewhere, customers are KINGS. Manufacturers and service providers bend over backwards to keep their customers happy, because it's the difference between keeping their customers and losing them. 

I don't know how, when, or why it became acceptable in our industry to behave as we do, but it's not ok and it's hurting everyone. 

So, should anyone actually be interested in addressing the issue, here are a few tips:

1. CALL PEOPLE BACK THE DAY THEY CALL YOU! Voice mail was not meant to be a tool to help you avoid dealing with your customer's issues! You could ignore the rest of these tips and still be ahead if you paid attention to this one!

2. Train your staff. Your customer service people should know how to use your product. Have classes for them, let them get hands-on experience. Educate them as to what circumstances your product will perform best in, and when it will perform poorly. (No matter what product you make paper? Teach them scrapbooking.)

3. "I don't know" is a good answer when it's followed up by a search for the correct answer and a telephone call. "I don't know" means your employee will learn, you will learn, your customer will learn; it's a good thing!

4. Orders should be checked before they are packed. If there is an error made, when the customer receives the order and calls you FIX IT RIGHT AWAY! Stop assuming that your customers are a) lying and b) out to get what they can. Likewise, if a customer calls and tells you there are ink spots on the paper she received, or that the pads are falling off her stamp pads, there is a problem. Don't lay the blame somewhere else; deal with it in a straightforward and honorable way.

5. If it's going to take you six weeks to ship an order, don't tell the customer two. For Pete's sake, be honest. You're not going to lose orders, but storeowners need to know when to anticipate receiving product.

6. This is the meaning of RESPECT practice it. "respect: CONSIDERATION. high or special regard. ESTEEM. the quality or state of being esteemed; expressions of respect or deference." Respect your company and the product you sell. Respect your employees. Respect your customers.

When you have no respect for the difficulties your customers are facing, you have no respect for yourself, the company, your products, or your employees. You may manufacture the most amazing widget ever created, but if your customers are not buying it, or are buying it under stress, you have failed.

7. Your most important customer is the one who places one minimum order with you once a year. You know, the one who is demanding and complains the most? How you treat her is an indication of how you treat everyone. There are wonderful, giving, funny, understanding, creative, amazing people in this industry. Very few customers are "problems." Learn to appreciate how amazing your customers are and treat them accordingly.

8. Hire sufficient staff. I would guess that a large part of the poor customer service issue is due to insufficient staffing in an effort to save money. I promise you that you are spending more in time, call tags, credit processing, and lost customers than it would cost you to employ another person and train them.

More importantly, be reasonable about how many hats one person can wear. Somehow small companies seem to have one person who's responsibilities keep growing and growing and growing. Owners/senior managers become so used to dumping everything on this person that they are not aware exactly how much responsibility that person has or is expected to deal with. Generally, this is the person who deals with customers and reps. Guess what? Spread employees too thin and they cannot be effective. Pay attention! I can almost guarantee that if you've read this far, you have at least one person in your organization whom you have overloaded to the point of breaking. No one can do everything.

9. Owning and operating a small retail store is an enormous undertaking in any venue. Only in our industry is a storeowner required to educate and entertain her consumer in addition to selling her product. Gift stores don't offer customer social nights (crops); clothing boutiques don't schedule classes. Manufacturers in the craft industry need to remember that our products don't waltz off the shelves. Our products are meant to be used, and consumers need to receive hands-on education in how to use them. Support your retailer customers' effort! (Think it's too expensive? Use this rule of thumb: Based on annual sales, 1% donation for prizes for anniversaries and other events, 4% for classes and make-it/take-its etc. That's only 5% of a customers' annual purchases and you get to write it off..)

10. Retail is changing like the rest of the world, but crafter's haven't. Since Wall Street discovered crafting, too many of us have gained a "suit" attitude. That would be ok if we were another industry say, toiletries; But we aren't. Most people have a desire to be creative. That aspect of the human personality rejects the "suit" persona. No matter what a person is in their professional life, in their creative life they are earthy, sensitive, and hands on. They wear tennis shoes, jeans, and sweats. They are the antithesis of the "suit" persona.

This is the person your customers are catering to. Take off your ties, put on some jeans and t-shirts, and communicate with them! (Look at Home Depot on any Saturday; those are YOUR customers participating in those seminars.)

Michaels, Jo-Ann's, Hobby Lobby, Archivers there are only so many big retailers in our industry. It's a really great, exciting thing when your product gets placement in one of them, but when it happens, don't forget that your bread and butter is the little store down the street where classes are taught and the staff consists of the owner and maybe one helper who know the product and how to use it. Little stores where enthusiasm carries over to the consumer.

Your business is selling product. Your customers are the most important and most fragile of all your assets. Take care of them!

(Note: Trish is president of MoonSong Design, 4538 E Silver Leaf Trail, Cottonwood, AZ 86326. Call/fax 928-639-4454; email moonsongdesign@msn.com. To read previous Kate's Collage articles, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)



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