Distributors talk about what customer service really means.
What does customer service mean to you? It’s a bit of an esoteric notion, customer service. One person’s “quick, reliable response” is another person’s “listen to the customer’s needs.” There is no one correct answer to this question, and the more people you ask, the more varied the answers. That’s what makes it such an interesting topic. The MHEDA Journal surveyed a dozen distributors around North America to find out what elements of the distributor-customer relationship are most important to them. Following are examples from the field on ways distributors are exemplifying their customer service and meeting the challenges of today’s material handling marketplace.
Maintain Open Lines Of Communication
This may seem like common sense, but distributors say that communication—more accurately, the lack thereof—is still the root of most customer issues, so it’s critical to pay attention to the details. To try to attack this problem head-on, Atlantic Coast Toyotalift (Winston-Salem, NC), makes customer communication a team effort. In addition to the typical equipment territory managers that interact with customers, customer service representatives handle the aftermarket side. Each group checks and balances the other to make sure every customer account is handled properly. In addition, management spends one day per week outside the office to follow up on projects and communicate with customers. President Jay Williford explains, “We make sure that we have a good hand-off of information regarding our customers throughout the company. Our entire staff, even the positions that don’t talk to customers, understands that the things they do can impact the customer,” he says. That includes doing their part to make sure orders are correct and on time, that bills are paid and issues are handled. “Even if it’s not immediately profitable, customer service means doing everything possible to do what’s right for the customer.” When it works, ACT employees don’t have to wait long to find out. Each quarter, customers nominate ACT employees for awards for doing an exceptional job. “The customer actually puts their testimonial in writing, and it’s a good way to keep employees focused on going above and beyond,” Williford says.
Procrastination Kills Customer Service
David Rizzo, president, A.J. Jersey (South Plainfield, NJ), believes that there is no substitute for good old-fashioned, hands-on communication. “Don’t sit around and wait for your customers to complain,” he says. “Stop by, see what their applications are and try to make recommendations. Get your salespeople and customer service reps to stop in and see existing customers as much as possible. You can fix small problems before they become big problems.” By following that philosophy, Rizzo also controls another potential customer service issue—follow-up. “Procrastination kills customer service. When you are called upon to react, don’t let it sit. It has to be addressed. When you become reactive rather than proactive, you lose.”
A.J. Jersey manages customers by having customer service representatives in addition to sales personnel call on customers. That double contact, along with specialized services like fleet stats and a mobile tire press, have helped add value for customers and improve the company’s customer service. “We recently upgraded our computer system to run customer reports more quickly,” Rizzo adds, “because information is key these days. Everyone wants it, and if you don’t give it, you don’t really have customer service. It’s not just about showing up and fixing their forklifts.”
Beyond communication is availability, and A.J. Jersey is willing to work extra hard to serve its customers. “Customers don’t need something only between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday,” Rizzo says. “We make ourselves available 24 hours a day, seven days per week. We do a tremendous business on the weekends.”
Strange Customer Requests
“The more of a relationship you have with your customer, the stranger the things they’ll ask you for,” says Tim Heesacker, director of sales at NMC Material Handling (Omaha, NE). Here’s a sampling of some of the most unusual requests MHEDA members have received over the years.
• Custom pushers to handle slaughtered hogs
– Tim Heesacker, NMC Material Handling
• Rack installation in an underground cave
– Mark Smith, Outsource Equipment Company
• Finding a locomotive on the open market
– Robert Young, Adobe Equipment Houston
• Overhead doors for a six-sided outdoor hot tub enclosure
– Brian Pevlin, Aims Ltd.
• Special attachments to handle spools of yarn
– Jay Williford, Atlantic Coast Toyotalift
• Fork extensions to cremate animals at a pet cemetery
– David Rizzo, A.J. Jersey
Go See Your Customer
Communication is paramount for David Cannon, president of Towlift (Cleveland, OH). “Whenever my people are in doubt about what it is they should do, I tell them to go see their customer. Don’t guess,” he says. “Don’t try to dodge an issue. Whether it’s good news, bad news or no news, you’ve got to be on the same page with the customer.” Cannon admits that doing so is harder as more and more salespeople rely on electronic communications rather than face-to-face meetings, but it’s still the way he wants his team to do business. “If you have the right solution, then your customer will make time to see you.”
Cannon also believes in the nitty-gritty details of customer service like answering the phone on the first ring and maintaining a positive attitude over the phone. Doing so requires extensive training, which Cannon provides to his team frequently. “We offer enormous amounts of training for salespeople, technical people, parts people and office people on understanding the products and services that we offer, so that everyone knows the solutions that are available for customer issues.” Of course, all that training doesn’t ensure a perfect customer service record. “Any issue is an opportunity to improve,” he says. “We’re thankful the customers will tell us their disappointment, so we can take some action on it. The ultimate disappointment is when they don’t tell you and just leave.” More often, though, the well-trained Towlift staff leaves a positive impression that results in unsolicited customer referrals, which Cannon considers the ultimate customer service success story.
Make Sure The Right People Are Dealing With Customers
It takes a certain personality to be able build rapport with customers and maintain their trust if an issue does arise. Having the right people on the front lines can go a long way to keeping customers satisfied. Instilling a companywide customer service mentality starts in the hiring process. George Sefer, vice president of sales at Atlas Lift Truck Rentals & Sales (Schiller Park, IL), says, “We typically hire people who recognize that our company is about understanding the customers’ needs. We attract the career professional who knows that relationships are necessary to succeed in our industry.” Once that person is on board, the most important thing an employee can do is listen to the customer. “Whether it is a customer service representative or a technician, the people who we have servicing the customer all are adept at listening and have the experience and the wherewithal to execute and deliver what the customer needs and requires,” Sefer explains. That pays off in positive customer experiences. Sefer points to one example of helping a nonprofit organization design an engineered system to lower their costs and improve their efficiency. “We listened to their needs, did extensive research and executed a plan to allow the customer to get the most for the least cost. It was a true success story.”
Satisfy The Customer First, Then Wrangle With The Supplier
Employees are also an important aspect of taking care of the customer at Adobe Equipment Houston (Houston, TX). “Customers put their trust in your people, whether that’s a salesperson or a service person,” says Robert Young, vice president and general manager.
Adobe employees build that trust with customers based largely on quick response time. Adobe enacted a policy a few years ago that mandates 24-hour response time for not only technicians, but salespeople as well. “It’s very unusual for customers to see a salesperson at their location so quickly,” Young says. “They enjoy the concept of old-fashioned service.” Another policy requires the company to contact the customer within two hours after a visit from a service technician. “You have to stay in touch with the customer and make sure everything is flowing smoothly,” Young says. To prove his point, he shares the story of a customer who bought a hydraulic pump that needed service. The company fixed it and sent it back. Shortly after, another similar unit had a problem. Adobe fixed that. Even though they were out of warranty, Young covered the repairs under warranty with blessing from the factory. “You take care of the customer first, then you argue with the factory about whether something is warrantable or not. You don’t say, ‘Let me check with the factory to see if it’s covered.’ You take care of the customer.”
Exceed Customer Expectations
At Aims Ltd. (Mount Pearl, NL, Canada), General Manager Brian Pevlin defines customer service as “trying to provide the customer with more than they expect.” Sometimes, that means doing something his customers almost never expect—pointing them somewhere else. “We provide them with whatever we can. If we can’t, we go the extra mile to advise them on where they can go to get the product,” Pevlin says. The salespeople at the company all are trained to live by the credo to be the best supplier of material handling products in the territory. To achieve that, Aims is diligent about making sure customers receive exactly what they order, both in quantity and quality of product, every time. “Customers do business with us because of the value we add to their experience,” Pevlin says. “We provide that, and then we are rewarded every time a customer compliments us on our service. That’s what it’s all about.”
Integrity Trumps All Ills
For Tim Heesacker, director of sales at NMC Material Handling (Omaha, NE), customer service success is measured not only in sales or survey scores but in expertise requests. “When a customer comes to us with a problem that they know is not in our area of expertise, that’s really a compliment. They thought so fondly of our work for them that they want us to help them in other areas totally unrelated to what we typically do,” Heesacker explains. That level of response is admittedly rare, but it does happen occasionally thanks to NMC’s obsessive focus on flexibility and fairness. “Everybody who represents a major line of equipment has a good product. The difference is how you listen to the customer,” Heesacker says. “No two customers have the same problem, no matter how similar they look. Our biggest strength is providing flexibility to help them meet their needs, whether that’s through financing or service programs or what have you,” he says. It comes down to integrity. “A lot of people confuse integrity and honesty. Honesty is telling somebody something that you did. Integrity is doing what you said you were going to do. So, integrity is a lot more important than being honest, and that’s how we try to take care of the customers who take care of us.”
If They Don’t Trust You, They Won’t Buy From You
Scott Bennett, vice president of sales at Arbor Material Handling (Willow Grove, PA), relies on constant professionalism and dedication to foster a sense of trust with customers. “Trust is the most important thing. You can have the greatest product in the world, but if your customers don’t trust you, then they won’t purchase from you. That’s why we’re committed to listening to and fulfilling customers’ desires,” he says.
That goes for all levels of the organization. “If we’re not engaging our customers at multiple levels throughout their company, from the executive level on down to equipment operators, we won’t find out what’s truly important, and that’s when we start slowly losing the relationship.” Building that trust and providing great customer service starts with the first customer interaction. “We first must establish ourselves as a resource for the customer, and then develop the relationship by proving to be a trustworthy advocate for the customer and working in their best interests, not our own best interests.”
Demonstrate Your Value
In times of economic downturn, customers often whittle their buying decision down to price. But it’s up to distributors to salvage sales and customer relationships by proving that their value goes beyond the numbers.
That’s the strategy employed by Tim Colston, president, Applied Handling Equipment (Dayton, OH). Primarily a storage & handling house, Applied Handling is seeing increased competition from systems integrators. “We’re trying to sell our value to the customer based on our experience and knowledge of their specific application,” he explains. “They can feel comfortable that we’re going to be able to understand and address their needs and wants, rather than just having them tell us how much they want to spend. It’s not about just taking an order; it’s about meeting their needs in the best way possible.”
Executing that strategy requires Colston and his team to rely on open communication and being proactive. “Especially if there’s bad news, we’ve got to communicate with the customer quickly and effectively. It’s always better for us to initiate that call rather than having the customer call us. People appreciate knowing what’s going on,” Colston explains.
Have You Ever Had to “Fire” a Customer?
Most likely, the answer is “yes.” You may not call it that, but there comes a point when any business has to sever ties with some customers. It’s a difficult decision to make, particularly in a challenging economy when any business is hard to come by. But here a few scenarios in which distributors have faced the tough choice. It’s time to fire a customer when the customer:
|• Makes unreasonable demands||• Tries to take advantage of the distributor on pricing|
|• Does not pay bills after 120 days||• Treats distributor’s sales staff disrespectfully|
|• Only shops on price||• Uses a product incorrectly and causes a liability issue|
Don’t Overthink It
Particularly in a down economy, when no one can afford to lose even one customer, a great deal of emphasis is rightly placed on customer service. Richard Rossi, president of New England Industrial Truck (Woburn, MA), sums up his customer service philosophy by saying, “Without our customers, there’s no need for us. Customers are our lifeblood. In order to maintain their loyalty, you have to give them the type of service they demand. If you don’t do that, they’ll get it from somebody else.”
That’s why Rossi advocates things like responsiveness, quick delivery, mistake-free service work, parts availability and product knowledge. Every touch of the customer must be a quality experience. “We have a general philosophy that everyone, from the guy who works in the parts department to the technicians on the road to the salespeople, understands that there’s nothing more important to us than our customer and their loyalty.” At the same time, though, he advises to keep it simple. “Don’t overthink it,” Rossi says. “Treat the customer like you want to be treated. That ought to do it for most people.”
Pricing vs. Service
“Truth and honesty are the basis for sales of any kind. If you don’t have an answer, say you’ll find the answer, and then find it. If you don’t have the product, say that you don’t have the product. Be forthright with the customer.” That’s the basis of customer service according to John Wrobbel, CEO, Power Sources (Lee’s Summit, MO). Wrobbel prides himself and his company on handling service requests within 24 hours because he knows that it only takes one slip-up to lose a customer for good. “It always takes longer to get a customer back than to get a new customer. It can be done with tenacity, but it’s not easy to get them back once they’re gone,” Wrobbel says. Though he concedes that customer service often gets ignored by customers who want to focus on lowest price, service always wins out in the long run. “We lost a customer because a competitor sold a purchasing agent a bill of goods. Before long, everything he told them fell apart and we got that customer back. The smell of pricing disappears on down the road when service falls apart,” Wrobbel says.
The Customer Is Not Always Right
Part of being honest with the customer is telling them they’re not always right. “Certainly, we want to take care of customers, but we have a duty to educate them. They’re not always right,” says Mark Smith, managing partner at Outsource Equipment Company (Winter Springs, FL). “What they think they need and what would actually solve their problem are not necessarily the same.” Smith encourages distributors to ask questions and not just jump at a potential sale. “It’s a challenge,” he admits. “But it’s about meeting customer needs. We all want sales, but it needs to be the right product for the right application.”
To improve his company’s relationships with customers, Smith is taking the extra step of implementing what he calls a “dream customer” program. He and his team are going through the database and determining which types of customers are most profitable. With that information in hand, the company will focus on those customers going forward.