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The real return on investment from good customer service

July 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Management

Service-plus strategies build your client base and reinforce relationships.

If you’ve ever been nickel-and-dimed by an auto mechanic, burned by a lazy home contractor or gotten lost in the wilds of an automated phone directory, you’ve learned some basic lessons about customer service.

Every business operates to some extent on a service philosophy—documented or not—that guides employee conduct, shapes interactions with suppliers and consumers, and provides a sense of purpose. Practically speaking, a service philosophy is executed in the performance of company personnel and in the activities and offerings that support the products and services that are sold.

We often use terms like “add-ons” or “service-plus” to describe these factors, which may suggest something that’s extra or an exception. However, they are a fundamental part of individual sales and essential for long-term profit making.

How do suppliers and end product manufacturers maintain their business relationships and create new ones? What do they offer to demonstrate expertise and establish a compelling brand? Regardless of their operation’s size or focus, our industry sources shared surprisingly similar recommendations.

Customization

Engage each new client with a consultative approach: Highlight what is unique about what you can do for them, and detail clearly how that will meet their needs. In the course of speccing equipment, suppliers routinely help manufacturers re-engineer their product designs and refine manufacturing processes.

Steve Leiserson, vice president at Schroeder Sewing Technologies of San Marcos, Calif., observes, “We often fall into it backwards. [EPMs] have been working months to do something and failed to get it accomplished. Then they call us up: ‘Hey, this is what we’ve been doing … how can you help us?’” In turn, Schroeder’s reputation rests on its expertise in adapting machines to different applications.

Likewise, manufacturers excel when they can deliver one-of-a-kind products for each customer and can articulate clearly the benefits of customization. Cassandra Roessner, public relations specialist for Celina Tent, Celina, Ohio, says her firm’s substantial graphics operation was born of the necessity to “adapt print to tent manufacturing” and not, as some have done, the other way around.

Warranties

Quality materials and craftsmanship are the foundation for any warranty program. Source the right components for the job and hire competent staff who can produce top-notch construction, and any claims (or complaints) will be minimized from the start.

Jeff Viehmeyer, owner of Alameda Canvas and Coverings, Alameda, Calif., admits he may often overbuild his work in the marine canvas industry. But the durability of his projects for boats sized 25 to 70 feet, more than 120 jobs per year, has resulted in only one warranty claim to date. Looking at this low call-back record, he had the confidence to increase his warranty coverage period as an attraction for new clients. “We now offer a two-year warranty,” he says, which is typically a statement in the work-order invoice.

Viehmeyer preps custom maintenance kits to accompany his guarantees and stocks reliable products that can’t be found elsewhere in his region. He emphasizes the need to err on the side of the customer for warranty claims. “We see it as an item of goodwill … normal wear and tear we just replace.”

Responsiveness

No one ever enjoys a wait. Minimizing turnaround time at every stage of the game—consultation, estimates, production, supply, shipping, installation, upgrades, repair—is a guaranteed formula for gaining devoted clients and a reputation that will travel. Chuck George, CEO of Hapco Inc. in Kent, Ohio, sells a variety of BAK thermoplastic welding tools and Honda power equipment. The depth of Hapco’s inventory and its ability to service machines quickly (while delivery drivers opt to wait) contribute a great deal to its sales.

“It’s important to help customers hit the ground running,” George says. As one example, Hapco began to source and supply power cords for equipment that, until then, was standard without them—a problem that customers failed to see was costing them time and money. “If you don’t have it, you’re hampering their ability to do their job.”

Research

After serving the Kennedy Space Center for decades as fabricators, Kimberly Phillips and Deborah Coombs launched Red Reed Threads in Merritt Island, Fla. Despite the close of the space shuttle program, the sisters continue to put their expertise to work on everything from avionics to auto racing and roller derby.

They describe their attendance at IFAI’s Expo Americas 2010 as an “eye-opener” in terms of new materials and designs on the market—information crucial for production decisions and opportunities to innovate. “We took a lot of [business] cards. It was like a candy store to us … We want to keep being creative and keep doing new things,” says Phillips.

Through frequent trade show visits and personal conversations, they’ve developed an awareness of what’s out there and what could be part of their own special flair. This appeals to would-be customers with whom they brainstorm and conduct R & D work. “We like the challenge and like when people want something different.”

Mutual growth

Elizabeth McGruder, marketing manager with Eastman Machine Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., notes that collaborations tend to expand the company’s inventiveness and deliver improvements that are useful in other niches: that is, a complete win-win. “Our customers supply us with feedback and custom requirements which have resulted in new releases,” she says, “like Eastman’s dual static and laser cutting system; a new and improved multi-ply cutting system; several custom tools for cutting/punching on the automated systems; and improved manual machines for heavy-duty composites and industrial fabrics.”

Roland DGA Corp., Irvine, Calif., recently launched a yearly contest called the Creative Awards (www.rolandcreative​awards.com) that features the work of Roland customers worldwide. The project photos and descriptions highlight novel uses for Roland’s products, demonstrate the variety of applications available, and suggest an infectious pursuit of originality in end users—all of which is great marketing for the Roland brand and its partners.

As Schroeder Sewing Technologies’ Steve Leiserson remarks, “A lot of things are not single-person inventions.” Instead, they’re the result of smart teams working together on complex problems. Incorporating and emphasizing a sense of collaboration in business relationships, with buyer and seller cooperating for reciprocal success, ensures that both parties get more from their business arrangement than just the standard return on investment.

John Gehner is a freelance writer and editor based in Atlanta, Ga.

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