Binders Gone Wild: What Do Custom Loose Leaf Manufacturers Do When Good Binders Go Bad?

by: Jeff Hunter, Federal Looseleaf

The world of custom-made ring binders is a world where the smallest detail, if overlooked, can come back at a manufacturer faster than your employees run for the parking lot on a sunny Friday afternoon. And in Minnesota, the land of nine-month winters, that’s pretty fast. “Binders Gone Wild” has happened to all of us to one degree or another, and will continue to happen because, unfortunately, those who make them are human and so are those who buy them – our customers. With each email we send and each phone conversation we engage in, every time we jump out of bed in the middle of the night wondering if we included a special customer spec on the job ticket, each and every time we update a customer on a project’s progress, we are open to the stress of oversight and error. And of course, expanding our stress expands our ability to make a mistake.

Houston, We Have a Problem

I well remember processing a heat-sealed vinyl binder order, manufactured to a customer’s exacting specifications. The 3-color screenprinting had been press checked and approved, the special clear vinyl pockets made to hold specially sized brochures were neatly sealed into place, and we happily sent them through our beautiful new high-speed riveting machine for ring mechanism fastening. We shrink-wrapped the colorfully printed sets of text and tabs, and inserted them between the covers (never in the rings!), and then individually boxed them for eventual UPS drop shipping by our customer. We palletized the order and trucked them to our customer’s mailing company, which dutifully shipped them to the final recipients.

The phone call came one week later.

One of the two rivets we used to secure the ring mechanism to the binder spine with our beautiful new high-speed riveting machine did not turn over the ring eyelet properly, and we did not catch it. This left some recipients with a spiffy new ring binder that had a unique “swing-away-style” ring mechanism. Oh joy.

We produced these binders for one of our biggest customers – a customer who, thank you very much, trusted us completely. We had always produced a quality binder product we were proud of, and liked to think that this level of quality alone kept them coming back. To put it bluntly, I was in a pickle. I felt that I couldn’t address this failure in quality control, or our future with this customer, until I had addressed the current problem. And I couldn’t sit back and chew on a nice clean solution to the current problem, because there was a desperate need for our customer to employ these binders right away. Did I mention that they had already been drop shipped to individual users? I thought so.

This is when I uncovered an interesting phenomenon… our customer didn’t think like we did.

It seems they were less worried about the current situation and who caused it than they were about what happened as a next step. We immediately offered to rerun the binders and get them shipped to the final recipients at our expense. This would mean a sharp shift toward the negative in our monthly profit and loss statement, but maybe – just maybe – a shift to the positive in the eternal struggle between loyal customers and lost customers. Our customer agreed and in an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, thanked us for our rush to customer service and for solving the problem for them. My nightmare turned into a dream when the customer added, “Just get them to our mailing company by Friday, and we’ll take care of the postage.”

You’re Only as Good as the Last Problem You’ve Solved

Fortunately, and I mean this in a good way, Federal Looseleaf is not the only custom house to travel down this road, nor are we the first to discover that promptly solving a problem after delivery might trump the fine service you bring to the project on the front end. Promptly responding to a problem, and letting your customer see how fast you can make it go away, can lead the customer to respect you on a much deeper level.

Essentially, a customer likes and trusts you because you bring an atmosphere of professionalism to its binder project. Yes, there are customers who are “call ins” – they’re only buying on price and they don’t care who you are or which unicorn you rode in on. But when you build a quality, long-term relationship – I’m talking about good customers who buy from you even though they have a nephew in the business who sells it cheaper – now THAT’S a customer.

Pat Rainey, president and owner of Academy Looseleaf in Nashville, Tenn., agrees. He’s been in the loose leaf business since 1981 and has had his share of “oops” projects.

It’s Always “Binders 101”

“Several years ago, one of our customers reordered some ring binders he had redesigned with a fresh new look,” said Rainey. “Part of the new look was a simple request for us to mount the rings on the back cover, instead of on the spines. I wrote the order up correctly, went over the project with the foreman, shipped and billed the job, and then got the phone call.”

I think I can see what’s coming.

Rainey continued, “Well, our guys were so used to mounting the rings in the spines, they didn’t notice the new instructions on the ticket. The foreman didn’t double-check because he was busy with something else, and the binders went out with rings on the spine. I apologized to my customer and asked what I could do to make him happy. He just asked me, as nice as you please, to watch it next time.”

Naturally, when the reorder came in Rainey was on top of the issue, had a long talk with everyone, and swore he’d get out in the shop to double-check the binders before they went out to the customer. Rainey then started working on the pile of stuff on his desk, billed the order after it was shipped, and got another phone call.

“Yup, we did it again,” Rainey admitted. “Seems that the crew was so overly worried about the order, they forgot to double-check the new guy in riveting. This time I offered the customer a discount, he accepted, and I thought that was the end of our relationship. Funny thing, though – this customer called me just last week for re-run of the same darn binder. The only thing he requested was that we mount the ring on the back cover this time!”

Rainey found a customer who admired his handling of the problem more then the failure that the original problem presented. The customer wasn’t angry, because Rainey handled the problem right away, with no delays piling onto the customer’s frustration level, no runaround about who was responsible for making it right, and a promise to fix it in the future.

The difference between my product failure (a ring actually loosening from the binder case) and Rainey’s product failure (to place the ring in the requested location) might appear great to those of us in the production end of the business. After all, my binders could not be used and Rainey’s could since the binder product still did what it was supposed to do. To the customer, however, a mistake is a mistake and the customer expects someone to own it.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

This new world we find ourselves in is unforgiving. Customer orders have slowed, cash flow has slowed, customer demographics are shifting, and binders are still going to go wild. The only thing we, as custom loose leaf manufacturers, can do is stay in front of our customers and be available when they finally figure out that they still need to make quality presentations. If our customers trust us enough to make that happen, they’ll trust us enough when we show our humanity by shipping an order that has a misfired rivet or misplaced ring in it…because we’ll be there, standing behind them, especially in this new world.

Jeff Hunter is a regular contributor to The Binding Edge, and is the president and owner of Federal Looseleaf, a custom binder manufacturer in Minneapolis, Minn.