Artificial Intelligence Customer Service (AICS)
Customer service is the backbone upon which every distributor builds their business. 12/17/2019 | Joel Schaffer, MAS, The Take Away
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By now, we all know of the concern for A.I., artificial intelligence, and the future of mankind. Is it good? Are there dangers?

Let me voice the concern for A.I.C.S., artificial intelligence in customer service and the needs of this industry.

Like you didn’t know that customer service is the backbone upon which every distributor builds their business. That’s not just their own service to their buyers but the service they must receive from their suppliers. Together, this synergy of service excellence provides a compelling reason to work with a creative promotional agency rather than take what is often an easier and less expensive pathway of buying online.

I believe a coffee pot is a perfect online purchase, while a custom branded packet of coffee is not. I am amazed that there are companies who risk their business and personal reputation by working with companies using AICS. Take UPS, did you ever try to get in touch with your local depot? Then, there are the mega wholesale gang printers. Have you ever tried to step outside their rigid requirements? When there is a choice, it is best to stay away from AICS.

Looking at price and convenience, a distributor places an order online for a standard digital print product such as a catalog sheet with a supplier who claims to want their business but may not understand the market. Aside from their hard and fast ordering criteria with no room for variation, an order of 1,200 catalog sheets may require a total purchase of 1,500. While “true” suppliers, even a local printer, will print to the quantity of the order, online sources tend not to individualize orders. As opposed to looking at the “drop dead date”, the online source relates that it is 2-4 days production and one needs to add the allowance for shipping from their FOB point. That should not be a problem unless there is a problem. Let me restate that…

“That should not be a problem, unless there is a problem”.

It is when there is a problem, such as a delayed shipment or a change order, that you are now faced with AICS. Doing an online self-guided check, you discover your order missed the ship date and is currently on their loading dock, ready to go and awaiting UPS pick up. “Simple”, all one needs to do is change shipping method and expedite it. You might call and sit on hold for a while or you could open a chat and look at an empty box for a while. Finally, Cynthia (CSR) types “good morning, how can I help you?” You then type your “problem” and wait and wait. No, she did not go to lunch or the ladies’ room, she was taking care of a bunch of customers at one time. After a back and forth typing exercise, you finally understand there “ain’t nothing” you can do about it. Your appropriate anger can not be placated. You may, if you are lucky, be offered a credit of $25 but that does not make you a happy customer or your client a happy customer.

A few months ago I received an order that I actually initiated for a distributor at an end-user show. While there was nothing negative that the distributor saw, the amount of customer service and support we had to give for a $200 order was beyond reason. No art charge, no reproofing charges could have covered me. I had e-mails from the distributor, from their support team and even from the client with art changes. We did not have artificial customer service nor robotic art support. We were live, we were vested, we were exactly what was needed. This model is in jeopardy. Why? Because this kind of service is almost unaffordable if we, as suppliers, are trying to compete with direct selling AICS companies online. Some form of AICS is needed… such as robotic phone answering. I am not a proponent of internationally outsourced customer service yet the larger distributor companies in our industry are subjecting suppliers to relentless order follow-up calls from off-shore. All of these steps provide better customer service but at an increased cost.

When you place an order, your vendor’s job is to produce your order and ship it on time seamlessly. Therein lies a concern you must have as to where you place the order and who to trust to get the job done for you.

Hear ye, hear ye, I am not a “vendor”. It may be an overworked word but, I am your “partner”. I have built my company to have a mentality or culture.......

  • At all costs, meet the ship date.
  • At all costs, meet the in hands date.
  • At all costs, keep your customer informed.

If this is not the mentality of the supplier you are dealing with, find a new supplier.

Joel D. Schaffer, MAS is CEO and Founder of Soundline, LLC, the pioneering supplier to the promotional products industry of audio products. Joel has 48 years of promotional product industry experience and proudly heralds “I was a distributor.” He has been on the advisory panel of the business and marketing department of St. John’s University in New York and is a frequent speaker at Rutgers Graduate School of Business. He is an industry Advocate and has appeared before the American Bankers Association, American Marketing Association, National Premium Sales Executives, American Booksellers Association and several other major groups. He has been a management consultant to organizations such as The College Board and helped many suppliers enter this industry. He is a frequent contributor to PPB and Counselor magazines. He has facilitated over 200 classes sharing his industry knowledge nationwide. He is known for his cutting humor and enthusiasm in presenting provocative and motivating programs. He is the only person to have received both the Marvin Spike Industry Lifetime Achievement Award (2002) and PPAI’s Distinguished Service Award (2011). He is a past director of PPAI and has chaired several PPAI committees and task forces. He is a past Chair of the SAAGNY Foundation, Past President of SAAGNY and a SAAGNY Hall of Fame member. He was cited by ASI as one of the 50 most influential people in the industry.

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