When the Rubber Hits the Road

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There are only two times that the consumer or buyer comes into real contact with a company -- the proverbial rubber hitting the road: When they actually buy and then when they receive what they bought. In the world of brick-and-mortar retailing, both of these actions are likely to occur sequentially. In traditional business-to-business selling by a sales force these two events are likely to occur at different times. But in cataloging they always occur separately, whether consumer or BTB.

This interaction point -- the human touch -- is as critical to the ongoing success of a company as the quality of its product, the price of the merchandise or its service policies. Why it's critical is because, to this point, the interaction has been neutral and has not involved any commitment by either party. But when the purchase is made, the customer is saying, "Okay, I like what I see and will buy it." They have committed to the company their money and tacit approval by choosing that company's product over that of a competitor's. The company has committed to the customer that what they have represented to the customer about the product is accurate and that the customer is going to get a fair value for the price.

The second interaction is when the customer receives his purchase. Has the company delivered as promised? Is the packaging both sufficient to protect the product and does it present the product attractively?

A major disadvantage for cataloging vs. a store is that a company's interaction with the customer is remote, a common characteristic of all direct marketing. In store retailing or by an outside sales staff, the customer may shop the company many times before buying. In these shopping trips, they get to meet the human face and voice of the company in the form of sales people on the store floor who can help them in their browsing. In a catalog, the human touch is the telemarketer on the front end and the pick-and-pack operation on the back end. This, in cataloging, is where the rubber hits the road.

Therefore it's critical in remote shopping that these interactions be the very best. There is little margin for error at this point. If the telemarketer is not pleasant, efficient and knowledgeable, the customer will hang up with a less-than-strong feeling that they had a good experience and indeed may have a feeling of apprehension that the order was taken correctly. Similarly, if the package arrives in poor condition, especially in the manner packed, they will again have a less-than-stellar reaction to the company. Either experience can severely reduce future orders. A company invests substantially to get an order in the first place.

Who cares about the human touch? A company's human touch are its telemarketing and fulfillment staffs. These are the people that your customers interact with and are your company to the public. It's not the beautifully designed and photographed book nor the creative ads in magazines nor all the great PR the company receives. It's these people that talk to and ship the orders that are your human touch.

Most companies recognize this fact and try very hard to train these staff positions to provide the level of service that will make the customer happy. But I recently attended the annual National Catalog Operations Forum and was shocked that there were very few CEOs, chief operating officers or, even more important, senior vice presidents of marketing and merchandising in attendance. We examined the roster of delegates for catalog companies and found that only 66 catalog companies out of 487 had a person at these levels in attendance. This is disgraceful.

Granted the topics discussed may seem dry, and there isn't a lot of deal making going on or dinners at fine restaurants. But it's where the managers, directors and vice presidents of operations found out how to better service their customers. Conversely, this week in Chicago at the 16th Annual Catalog Conference there will be many senior management people in attendance. At this conference there will be only a few sessions that will deal with the human touch of cataloging. And at those, there will be sparse attendance from senior management. While the deal making and interacting with suppliers is important, in today's highly competitive world, it's equally important that everyone in a company, from the CEO down, to be aware of the need to provide the highest level of human touch.

Only by going to a conference like the NCOF will a company's senior management find out how to improve the human touch for their company. This is an investment in time that will reap benefits as great as any found at a conference where one is looking for the next best list or idea to find customers. Remember it's cheaper to retain current customers than it is to find new ones. So I urge all senior management in areas like marketing and merchandising to put the NCOF conference next April on their calendars. It is time for senior management to get out and find out what is happening when the rubber meets the road.

Bill Dean is president of W.A. Dean & Associates, San Francisco, which publishes monthly The Dean Report. His e-mail address is billdean@dean-assoc.com.

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