Picture perfect Featured

8:00pm EDT April 26, 2006
When Mark Zucker left his job running a photo album business to start his own, he changed one important factor — his location.

His previous company was based in New York, but by headquartering his new company, Zookbinders, in Chicago, Zucker reduced costs and positioned himself as the only photo album company within 1,000 miles.

Low prices initially helped Zookbinders gain clients, but great customer service has retained them. And Zucker stresses great customer service not just in initial dealings with a client but also when things don’t go according to plan.

“As a manufacturer, there are occasions when we are late on an order or that we’ve done something wrong,” says Zucker, president of the $6 million-plus company. “Our clients know that the customer service reps are their advocates. We view a mishap in manufacturing as an opportunity to show off how we’ll jump through hoops to satisfy a client, kind of turning a negative into a positive.”

Smart Business spoke with Zucker about how he initially attracted clients and the importance of customer service in a growing company.

How did you market yourself and create a client base?
We’ve always been a quality house from Day One, and this was a benefit that we promoted aggressively. However, since the cost of doing business in Chicago was a lot lower than what we were used to in New York, we were also very price-competitive.

We changed the pricing structure on the way our product is sold. Industrywide, prior to us starting, it was very confusing. There were a lot of nickel-and-dime charges, and quite honestly, it turned off a lot of potential clients.

We came in and simplified it and basically said all-inclusive pricing. This album with this amount of pages costs this, period. And that really helped us out.

Our product line was also very simple in that we offered choices only on items that we thought were important to the client — for example, color of leather for their album cover. And we didn’t offer choices on less important items. This kept our costs and mistakes down and allowed us to train new colleagues quickly.

The last thing we did was, initially, our prices were way below market because we wanted a flood of business and the good buzz that comes with that.

How do you encourage your employees to excel at customer service?
We remind them that outside of work, they change hats and become the customers. They have many interactions, both positive and negative, with customer service reps in their daily dealings.

We frequently discuss why they continue to give business to the same companies, whether it’s a restaurant, a dry cleaner, a beauty salon, and customer service is usually a driving force. One of my personal experiences with customer service reinforced the power of good customer service.

My family took a trip to Seattle and we stayed at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. We experienced such superior service that I sought out the hotel’s general manger to compliment him. I was half joking when I told him that I would like to bring my entire customer service staff to experience this level of customer service.

He was flattered and offered to have his staff put on a training program for our staff. We flew a staff of 14 to the Fairmont and had an extraordinary customer service experience.

How has that helped you better serve your clients?
We had the hotel’s director of operations put on a training presentation for us in which they shared some of their secrets and training tips. The one question everyone on our staff wanted to ask was, ‘How do you deal with clients that are unhappy?’

The presenter said, ‘Get past the tone and volume and listen to the message.’ And that was the golden nugget. They shared with us about how they trained their staff on how to make eye contact and how to use the client’s name and be proactive.

One of the other things we learned is you have to recruit talent. If you don’t recruit the talent, it is really hard to coach and take someone who is not at the talent level that you want to do the job that you want.

One of the other benefits was it was a morale booster and a team builder. As the president of the company, I don’t interact with everyone here on a daily basis. It was my personal agenda to spend a little bit of time with everybody and get to know them better in a less formal setting.

I think that was as big a benefit as the formal training. HOW TO REACH: Zookbinders Inc., (800) 810-5745 or www.zookbinders.com