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Proactive Customer Service

Jun 21st, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

I visited my previous workplace last night to drop off some dollie tires, web and it reminded me of — by the time I left — how happy I was to stop working there. There is something about managing a tow company that can just beat you down like a bent nail over time. It wasn’t anything specific to that company or those drivers or the layer of brake dust from the nearby freeway that coated everything in that facility. My time there had simply expired. I needed to move on.

Moving into the world of products and order fulfillment presented new challenges, and I learned many things about supply-chain economics that I did not know. Today’s customer service environment has influenced companies to change their standard practices, mostly for the good. For instance: our customers expect to know what’s going on with their order. So when we receive the order, we send out an order confirmation telling them where the order is shipping from and when they should expect it. After it ships we send them a tracking number. I like this practice, as labor-intensive as it is, because it is proactive and it also forces us to gather data so when the customer calls because they didn’t read the email we sent them with the tracking number, we have the tracking number available. This is much better than not having the tracking number, in which case you look like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.

So here is the part of the process that most customers don’t know about: most manufacturers and wholesale suppliers have not entered this world of proactive customer service. They are lingering in reactionary practices and they are resisting the lure of current customer service best practices. Some of them are resisting aggressively. Some of them are actually data black holes, sucking in information from nearby businesses where it will never be seen again. Maybe that’s why they are selling via wholesale rather than retail.

Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about. We have a procedure we follow when we place an order, whether it’s a large stock order or a small drop-ship order. I constructed this procedure after placing orders with suppliers many times and not doing the steps I’m about to describe, and then having it bite me in the ass too many times. First, we send a Purchase Order with all of the necessary information — item numbers, costs, quantities, destination, etc. On the PO are two sentences:

“Please confirm receipt of PO with tracking number or estimated ship date.

Please forward tracking number after order ships.”

Why would you have to include these two sentences, you ask? Wouldn’t they just proactively provide this information, as we do to our customers? Well, I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen. We have a few suppliers who follow these instructions consistently and may they be blessed with eternal happiness and perfect health. I love them. Without them I would be utterly hopeless that it could happen at all. Most suppliers will confirm receipt of a PO usually within a few hours of receiving it. If we do not receive a confirmation within 24 hours we send the PO a second time asking if it was received, and we continue to do that, although at a certain point we start calling until we get an answer or consider getting on a plane to visit the warehouse in-person to verify that our order has been received.

Once we have a confirmation, we start asking for a projected ship date. Some suppliers will include this in the confirmation as requested, and many have learned to do so because they got tired of me asking after they confirmed with no projected ship date. If the ship dates comes and goes and we have not received a tracking number, we start asking for that. And again, we continue to hound until we have the prey in our grasp.

So you can see this is an arduous process sometimes. I call it “babysitting the vendor.” It’s a reality of our business. You can’t afford to relax, because the customer deserves the best service you can provide and accurate information. I’ve said this before: accurate and timely information is one of the most important commodities we provide. If you walk into a store and buy something, you know what you paid, and you have it with you when you leave. If you order something over the phone or via the web, you need to know what you’re paying and when you’ll get it. Similarly, we need to know the same thing from our supplier. Unfortunately, there are limited sources for items (and these sources apparently know that), so if we don’t get it, we’re stuck. If you order something from us and we fall short in our customer service, you might be able to buy the same thing somewhere else. We don’t always have that luxury, so we are hostage to the level of service provided by the supplier. It used to frustrate me that I had to go through so many steps to get information that a supplier should have been offering to me before I asked for it, but after multiple therapy sessions and a few brushes with death, I’ve accepted it for what it is. I’ve kind of taken it upon myself to help to draw these operations into the 21st century by relentlessly hounding them for the information I require to be competitive in our market, and I have everlasting hope that I will groom individuals at these various companies to learn how to provide quality customer service proactively before they leave for greener pastures and I have to train their replacements.

It keeps me busy, and I like being busy.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper