In 2015, I wrote a LinkedIn article that started:
My name is Julie Kerwin, and I am addicted to customer service.
Trust me, it came as a surprise to me, too. When I first embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, customer service didn’t even make my top ten list of “reasons to start a business.” Initially, I was all about creation and message. I had happily discovered that the act of creating something that hadn’t existed before generated the same endorphin rush that people get from exercising; a joyful sense of satisfaction, and a genuine, physiological, chemically-induced euphoria. I loved it (I still love it).
Remarkably, I soon realized that this same endorphin rush also occurs whenever I do customer service well. Happy customers make me euphoric in the same way that creating product does.
Thankfully, 99 percent of the action figures we ship have long and healthy lives, and spend those lives as central characters in save-the-world stories created by both children and adults all over the globe. Indeed, a small army of those well-served customers always take the time to reach out to let us know how much they like our product. The feedback is extremely satisfying, and I gratefully write back personally and engage in conversation with every single one of them. As strange as it sounds, I genuinely feel as if I am making new friends daily. I like to say that I have “pen pals” living in all fifty states and on six continents.
My customer service addiction, however, was not triggered by those happy customers. Rather, it was born like a phoenix from the ashes of the one percent of the packages that end up requiring some sort of intervention to remedy a problem that unexpectedly happens somewhere along the way. In these moments, I find myself ready, willing, and able to do anything it takes to rectify the situation in order to make a frustrated customer happy again.
Sometimes, action figures get injured in battle.
Having said that, when we sent our first production run out to Backers after our Kickstarter campaign five years ago, I never imagined that I would someday make it a policy to replace a broken action figure. Financially it wasn’t even an option. IAmElemental is not Hasbro or Mattel. Our production runs are much smaller. Our margins are much tighter. And, who are we kidding? Even with their exponentially larger production runs, and much better margins, Hasbro and Mattel aren’t replacing broken action figures either. Sometimes, action figures get injured in battle. It happens. I couldn’t afford to replace a broken action figure…until the day that I realized that I couldn’t afford not to replace a broken action figure.
Good Customer Service is Good Marketing
In a 2017 LinkedIn article, I proudly described us as “The Unsexy Startup”, and the description is still apt. At the outset, we deliberately and intentionally decided to forgo investor dollars in favor of a slow growth, word-of-mouth model. I believed then, and I believe now, that we would have been out of business three years ago had we taken that money. We would have been forced into hyper growth without the necessary brand awareness, and one of my biggest nightmares would have come true: people would have discovered IAmElemental action figures in a discount bin at Target or Walmart.
Having said that, I readily admit to pangs of jealousy whenever I see the marketing opportunities afforded fellow toy startups who do choose to take investor money. In the same 2017 article, I likened social media to the Biblical Tower of Babel; a place where everyone is yelling and, mostly, failing to be heard above the noise. I felt then, as I do now, that as the number of users continues to grow, rather than increasing the audience reach, the sheer volume - of both people and voices - has actually made it harder and harder to use social media as an effective marketing tool. It costs a lot of money; too much money for a small, independent toy company without investors’ deep pockets. Conversion rates are simply too low to spend my limited marketing budget spitting into the wind.
Instead, we have opted to direct the bulk of our marketing dollars toward better customer service. Recognizing that Amazon Prime customers have become accustomed to free shipping, we started offering free domestic shipping on orders over $25. Grateful for our international customers, we now ship anywhere outside the United States for a flat $10 fee. And, most importantly, wanting our customers to embrace our “Play with Power” mantra - even if it means that an action figure occasionally loses a limb in the process - we replace broken Courage and Wisdom figures free of charge.
Thankfully, the number of action figures who actually do lose a limb is relatively low; most of them aren’t tortured to death by the family dog like our very first replacement figure casualty. IAmElemental figures generally survive their battles unscathed. Nevertheless, the decision to change our policy and replace broken figures has generated our best marketing ROI in five years. For, while we definitely want - and need! - new customers to grow and survive, our actual customers are the most important Superheroes in the IAmElemental universe. We only exist because of their generous and enthusiastic support. As a result, good customer service is not just a passion, it is a prerequisite. Not because it is good marketing; and not because the customer is always right. Rather, because a happy and satisfied customer is everything.