Custom Binding: Dedicated Customer Service Meets DIY Convenience

by: Renée Varella

Today’s loose leaf market offers a range of options for consumers who want it all – whether that be the convenience of ordering custom binders through a strictly “do-it-yourself” online service or the attraction of learning about all of the custom features available from an experienced customer service rep. In this article, The Binding Edge explores different ends of the custom binding spectrum, starting with Avery Signature Binders and its exclusively online service and then highlighting the more traditional customer service approach from American Thermoplastic Company.

A Tale of Two Binders

Avery Signature Binders, based in Brea, Calif., is a division of Avery Dennison Corp., which got its start when R. Stanton Avery manufactured the first self-adhesive label in 1935. Today the company provides pressure-sensitive materials, retail information services, and office and consumer products. The company’s Signature Series allows customers to go online and order any quantity of personalized binders, even just one – with logo, photos, and graphics printed on the cover in full color – and the binders are guaranteed to ship within five business days. Customers handle the transactions totally on their own; the company responds to questions primarily via email.

“We’ve been looking at personalization and trends in the marketplace,” said James Johnson, director of global business development for Avery Signature Binders. “Our concept is based on ‘mass customization’ – consumers want very personalized products at mass production prices.” He said that Avery built the business based on the principle of giving people the opportunity to produce short- run, no-minimum orders, which has brought new people into the marketplace. “We’ve gotten tremendous customer feedback,” he added. “Our latest survey indicated that 90 percent would ‘definitely purchase again,’ while 10 percent were ‘likely to purchase again.'”

American Thermoplastic Company, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., manufactures custom-imprinted binders and related loose leaf products for business, industrial, and educational accounts. In 1954, Aaron Silberman started providing local businesses with foil stamped vinyl products. Thanks to the addition of four-color digital process printing in 1998, customers can order smaller quantities and design different variations and special messages on their products that can change from copy to copy during a print run. A customer service team works with each customer, even those who start the ordering process online. American Thermoplastic’s QuickShip program sends custom-imprinted binders to customers in six days, and stock items can be shipped within 24 hours.

“We’re serving customers with slightly different needs,” said Steve Silberman, who succeeded Aaron, his father, as president of American Thermoplastic in 1986. “We think there’s value in the customer being able to talk to a customer service representative. Customers may not end up with everything they want if they don’t hear about their options.” He added that customers who need exactly what DIY companies offer may be satisfied. However, he gave the example of a customer who ordered a 1½” binder when what she really needed was a 2″ binder. “Through our customer service process we can help customers figure out exactly what they need,” he said.

Customer Service: A Balancing Act?

Both American Thermoplastic Company and Avery Signature Binders offer the consumer a variety of custom binding options, speedy turnaround and competitive pricing. However, their approach to customer service highlights certain differences.

For Avery, the biggest advantage of its do-it-yourself option lies in taking away the expensive part of the process: interacting with the consumer. “What was initially costly and time-consuming is now easy,” Johnson said. “Our online system helps consumers find a photo they like, type in their text, and upload their logo. It also helps them along the way – for example, if they try to size a low-resolution logo too big, a warning message will pop up, telling them they need a higher-res logo.

“Our software is designed to help consumers help themselves,” Johnson added. “They like the ability to play with the layout and design, see a 3-D preview of their finished product, and get their pricing questions answered without having to send someone their contact details and wait for a call back or, worse, fill out a form for a quote.”

According to Johnson, Avery is looking for underserved consumers – those looking for six to 10 custom binders. “Ninety-seven percent of our orders are for less than 25 binders,” he said. “However, about 50 percent of our total volume comes from orders of more than 25 binders, because customers liked the service.” Avery also is targeting those who prefer to do everything online, with Johnson noting that 98 percent of his customers never communicate with a customer service representative.

For American Thermoplastic, walking consumers through the custom binding process is paramount – with a level of attention not available through an exclusively online system. American Thermoplastic’s Silberman said his customers want to be taken care of by a knowledgeable customer service person and need products that are not off-the-shelf. “Someone who places an order every few years doesn’t know all of the options – for example, that they can put their business card on the front of their binder, or have a variety of pockets or a DVD holder,” he said. Silberman added that each company has a different mindset when it comes to an online ordering system: “At American Thermoplastic, we’re interested in how to get customers the options they need, such as matching digitally printed index dividers v. a plain binder with a certain set of specifications.”

Johnson said Avery’s take on the customer service issue is this: “If you’re not ready for the next wave of business – how to communicate with this new generation who expect to handle the entire transaction themselves – you’re going to be in trouble.”

Transaction Land

One element of Avery’s process that Silberman admires is that the entire transaction is handled through Avery’s website. “The process accomplishes a number of things for the seller: the customer has to take responsibility for the final product and has to pay for it upfront. That’s everything we dream about – we don’t want customers to call back and say, ‘That’s not what I wanted,'” he said. “Avery has figured out how to do it all online, and I applaud them for it.”

In fact, Silberman was so intrigued by the process that he went to Avery’s website, went through all of the options, and bought a binder for himself. The only catch: “I intentionally put in typing errors and put the text off-center to see if someone would catch it, but they did not,” he said. That’s why Silberman believes it’s important for his company to offer customers a level of oversight that exclusively online systems don’t provide. “For us, many times a customer will send in artwork or do something else that doesn’t work. So we always call the customer and ask, “Are you sure you want this word spelled that way or want this text off-center like this?”

Avery’s Johnson agreed that not having a traditional proof process could be a disadvantage for some customers, noting that with Avery’s system, “what you see on the screen is what you get.” Even so, Johnson said customer complaints to Avery are the exception. “A few customers have thought the computer misspelled a word after they’d given their approval of the job, but most customers will eventually come clean,” he said. “If there’s a mistake, we’ll usually offer a discounted remake or make a new binder for a customer who ordered just one binder.” What’s more, Avery will make the occasional customer service exception: “One customer needed help and asked me to do a web conference with her and walk her through the process of ordering custom binders through our website,” Johnson said. “Now she orders 10 binders a week from us.”

Johnson acknowledged that Avery’s digital printing process doesn’t offer economies of scale, so prices aren’t negotiable. In addition, Avery doesn’t churn out thousands of binders or match PMS colors. “My suggestion is that the customer order one binder – if we nail the color on it, I tell the customer that we can guarantee that the rest of the binders will be just like it,” he said.

While Avery does serve the home application market with such materials as scrapbooks, recipe books, and school binders, Johnson noted that law offices and financial companies are especially well-suited to the process offered by Avery Signature Binders. “These companies can create the background of their binders once, use Avery’s text merge tool to customize their binders, and binders can be produced with an individual name or company on it,” he said. “The variable data can be anything, even white. Consumers really like the actual quality of our binders (printing on vinyl vs. a laminated look), and some don’t care about price. Those are nice customers to have.”

The Road Ahead

Despite some differences, Silberman and Johnson are anticipating future needs – and share the attitude that the loose leaf market offers plenty of opportunity for progressive companies. “There’s a place for a lot of different manufacturers and different products out there,” said American Thermoplastic’s Silberman. “My hope is that customers will be able to figure out which kind of supplier they need.”

Johnson of Avery agreed, stating his belief that there will always be a need for custom binders. “When Avery looked at the market 25 years ago, we saw the rising popularity of the clear view binder and got out of the silkscreen binder business altogether,” he said. “We don’t see what we’re doing now as taking away that business.”

In response to the changing demographics of today’s young consumers – many of whom are enamored of new media offerings like the Apple iPhone and Twitter – American Thermoplastic may eventually offer a way for customers to place orders completely online, something the company’s sales reps are currently doing. That said, American Thermoplastic’s Silberman doesn’t consider younger consumers to be all that different from other customers. “Even young people tuned in to social media really want special attention paid to their needs and to how their product looks,” he said. “I suspect that younger customers may be even more demanding of attention and want binders to reflect who they are.”

Avery’s customers tend to be small business owners, with a slight majority of customers female and a bit younger than average. “We plan to aggressively go after the younger market, which lends itself to school binders,” Johnson noted. “We’re also getting ready to enter a relationship with a very large social media network where we’ll put our application into the middle of a community of users, so people can create binders for themselves and sell them to others.”

Stay tuned for future updates in the loose leaf market – with its ever-changing landscape of technological innovation and strategic marketing initiatives.