How Customer Service Can Boost Your Bottom Line

The fax machine had a time and a place, but like the cassette tape player and the VCR, its role has diminished with the rise of new technology.

Unfortunately, some growers still share their product availability with customers as if it’s the 1990s. But progressive businesses like Emerald Coast Growers are with the times and serving their customers at a deeper level while saving on labor. Emerald Coast, one of four finalists for Greenhouse Grower’s 2011 Operation of the Year, shares product availability online in two Excel formats– 52-week availability and quick-glance availability – at ECGrowers.com.

“Our customers want information,” says Al Mueller, Emerald Coast’s vice president of finance. “They want to know availability, how their order is or what they have on order.”

Customers want information at different times of the day too, Mueller says, and top-level customer service today means making information accessible at all times. Easy access means more than developing a customer-friendly website, though. These days, it means making a commitment to develop a mobile site that meets the needs of rapidly changing customers.

“A combination of these things has helped us and our customers,” Mueller says. “It makes it easier for brokered customers. They don’t need to call us on the phone. They can look for information in the evening and take it to their customers the next morning.”

Emerald Coast, of course, still makes its sales department available for questions related to orders. But offering availability sheets online frees up Emerald Coast’s sales team to focus on greater tasks.

“As an industry, I think we went to new technology later than other industries,” Mueller says. “But we’re changing as an industry now.”

Social Media’s Payback

Social media is another industry-changing development, but it’s difficult to quantify savings and profits through mediums like Facebook. But despite the challenges growers face in determining whether or not social media offers a payback, it’s something our Operation of the Year finalists agree growers must do.

“We spend a lot of time and effort developing our Facebook page,” says Marc Clark, executive vice president at Rocket Farms. “We have somebody who works on that part time, then somebody who works on our website and PR full time.”

Considering the minimal investments growers must make to manage a Facebook account or Twitter handle, Mueller says it makes sense to at least dabble in the social media arena.

“We have customers who will see something on a Facebook page, and they’ll call us up right away and order it,” Mueller says. “Or they’ll order it through the Facebook page. Is there a payback? We don’t know yet. But the input costs have been relatively low. I can’t say it’s paid for itself, but I can’t say that it’s hurt.”

Clark, whose company’s Facebook page surpassed 5,000 likes late last year, agrees with Mueller’s assessment.

“Social media can be managed cost effectively and you can reach a lot of people,” he says. “That’s why we do it. It allows us to have a relationship with customers that’s difficult to have otherwise. It’s a cool way to get in touch with your end user.”

Bobby Barnitz, a vice president at Bob’s Market and Greenhouses, sees value in embracing social media because it establishes business-to-customer relationships for wholesale growers who are typically used to operating in a business-to-business format.

“There’s been a change in our consumer base,” Barnitz says. “Our consumer base for many years has been the Baby Boomers. Now, we’re trying to market our products to the X and Y generations. You have to meet them on their level. Do they buy newspapers? Heck no. They get their news from a smartphone, the Internet. We’re talking about a major change in our industry, and we have to react to that change.”

Grower Trials: A Customer Service Tool

Another customer service area in which James Greenhouses has made an investment is a trial garden. James Greenhouses isn’t a Top 100 operation, spanning about 70,200 square feet of heated greenhouses in Colbert, Ga. But Ken and Leah James value passing along the best perennial plant genetics so much that they have one full-time person dedicated to trialing product.

“That’s this person’s entire job,” Ken says. “They deal with breeders and suppliers, and they get their hands on everything we’re interested in. We put varieties through a rigorous trial process. They go through propagation. We see how it behaves as a liner; how it behaves in a container. Then we go into the ground and treat it like a homeowner might treat the plant.”

Going through such a rigorous trialing process gives Ken the confidence he needs to sign off on particular perennial varieties to customers. Still, because James Greenhouses is a young plant grower with customers outside the South, he won’t oversell a variety for another region that’s probably best designed for Georgia.

“We’ve become fairly ruthless in our rejection of new genetics in the perennial field,” Ken says. “Every breeder says we’re not a me-too company, but that’s retail. Look down the mouthwash aisle and you’ve got Listerine and then everybody else.”

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