Have print’s customer service capabilities been put on hold?

Max Goldbart
Monday, October 10, 2016

Got an issue with your phone contract? Attempting to purchase Glastonbury tickets? Or, just maybe, opting for a new supplier for your latest print job? There is a very good chance you will have to put up with some interminable hold music.

A new study into telephone practice, by audio branding specialist PHMG Worldwide (which, as an aside, has fantastic ‘auto-attendant’ hold music), has called printers’ call handling standards into question. However, while poorly chosen telephone muzak or failing to pick up the receiver in three rings might be classed as customer service fails, in the bigger scheme of things the industry faces a general perception that as belts have been tightened, customer service standards have slipped.

Having been in print since the age of 16, 52-year-old Mark Francis (not to be confused with Made in Chelsea’s bachelor of the same name) became an independent print consultant four years ago, providing print buying services for a number of different companies. 

“A classic example for me happened this morning,” he says.

“I put a quote out to a company three days ago and three days later I’m chasing up that cost.”

Francis believes that print has lost its way from a customer service point of view since it began its recovery from the recession.

“I think in general, with sales and customer service, the knowledge bank out there is diminished. People are very specific to their own speciality, whereas 10 years ago people were more educated to a whole range of operations. Putting it politely, some of them that are now working in that environment maybe aren’t quite up to the job.”

Printers’ availability outside of hours was also called into question by the PHMG survey, which found the vast majority of those in print surveyed (93%) do not even use auto-attendant messaging to greet customers who ring outside of normal working hours. 

“This may be slightly different for me but if you are seeking print services for the first time, factories are running 24 hours, six days a week and yet you can only get through to people between nine and five,” says Francis, who has worked in a wide variety of roles during his tenure in print.

“If you’re not aware of the person’s direct dial or mobile number, then how do you contact them after those hours? They may say they run a 24-hour business, but what about at reception?”

So there’s no chance of getting information on your desperately required print job, then, if you’re putting in a call at 5.01pm. You might as well wait until the following morning. In a connected 24/7 world, you have to question why many print companies are struggling to even provide simple services like auto-attendant messaging.

Staying connected

Northamptonshire-based Proprint Group co-director James Denny, who, along with fellow director Nigel Tollman, has built the company up into a £7m-plus turnover operation since it was founded five years ago, believes the key lies in having an internal and external sales team, and staying connected.

“We have out of hours contacts through to production and even up to sales level, so you have account managers who look after the key accounts. So customers have a three-way production contact,” he says.

“If there is anything wrong with a delivery, over a weekend for example, customers can contact them and we then have the external sales contacts for other issues.”

JPS Print was highly commended at last year’s PrintWeek Awards for its fantastic levels of customer retention, much of which appears to come from a sound and simple customer service ethos.

80% of JPS’ revenue comes from clients of five years’ standing or more, and with no dedicated customer service or sales team, 100% of business comes from client referrals and word-of mouth.

“We believe that we have to pave our requirements so that they are the best for our clients,” says JPS commercial director Bridget Petty.

“So we adopt a solution that meets clients’ needs, slotting into their world rather than them having to slot into ours.”

Petty believes printers need to be honest from the off about their pricing and that this transparency is partly responsible for JPS’ impressive levels of customer retention.

“What I believe is mainly responsible for the 80% retention we have is actually price and policy. We keep everything tight on the price side, avoiding anything that would penalise the customer in any way, to ensure they have the opportunity to stick to the original price whatever it may be,” she says.

“Also, we are equally nice to everybody. So we have a strong relationship with suppliers, keeping them on side as well as clients.” 

There are calls from others in the industry, including Matthew Parker from Profitable Print Relationships, to go a step further. He asks if companies should be approaching their most valued customers first, keeping a record of when they have last spoken to them and constantly reminding them that they are on the mind.

“That is very very unusual,” says Francis. “That anyone would go out and ask the question to the end user, rather than the end user asking them a question... Well, let’s just say it would be refreshing.”

Customer service will always be a tricky area to approach, especially in an industry that is constantly changing and developing, embracing the digital world at breakneck speed. But it seems when it comes to facing clients in this industry, making them feel valued from minute one is a key driver for success.


Service is mostly good but there’s room to improve

matthew-parkerMatthew Parker, director, Profitable Print Relationships

I think generally printers are good at customer service. They need to be able to be sure that they deliver their jobs correctly and that jobs go through the system efficiently but in general the experience I’ve had is that customer service is good, particularly because there is such a lot of competition out there.

I would say that the on-boarding of a new customer is not as good as it could be. I have quite often been at the point where a lot of assumptions have been made by the printer and the customer, which could have been avoided if both sides had been clearer about how they did things and managed expectations to begin with. 

What companies are also less good at is being proactive. 

Very few printing companies have a customer service management programme in place and so lots of managers react very well, but they are not always listening when customers say that there are ways they can work better together. 

I think to improve on-boarding and create a customer review programme there needs to be a push from the top. If you take your top 20% of customers, which will probably account for about 80% of turnover, you may only need to sit down with 10 to 20 customers, and the benefits of that can be huge for the profitability of your business.

Some of the issues with calls can be overcome by more proactive communication or automation. MIS systems these days actually allow customers to see what is happening with jobs so they don’t have to make those phone calls. 

I’ve had my fair share of people answering the phone who are either having a bad day or maybe it’s not the prime point of their job but they don’t want the hassle of speaking to a new customer and I’ve found these responses offputting.


What’s your experience of customer service in print?

sam-nealSam Neal, managing director, Geoff Neal Group

“In my opinion, the biggest distinguisher between businesses is the customer service. If the customer service is good then most other things follow, because it means that the staff are engaged, focused and want to do a good job. If this is the internal attitude, then the finished product is going to be great as well. Business life, like personal life, comes down to relationships and customer service in a business environment is the best way to build long-term, strong and successful business relationships.”

gary-walkerGary Walker, managing director, Snap Print Management

“My view is you should always say ‘yes’, which is easier to do operating in the print management field that perhaps it is in print itself, in the sense that we are not governed by our own production board. We tend to only recruit people who have experience in the industry, tending to operate as more of a consultancy really. So anyone you speak to here will understand the subject matter and the job. It’s not like there are hundreds of receptionists and account managers that you have to go through.”

james-kinsellaJames Kinsella, e-commerce director, Route One Print

“Customer service is core to our proposition. The print industry is highly competitive and with low switching costs it means we have to focus on it more than a traditional e-commerce brand. It costs a huge amount to acquire new customers, so we are much better off focusing our efforts on providing service to our current customers. From day one, everyone is given the client services bible, which is the backbone of everything we do. All our employees receive customer service training, from account managers to press operators.”


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