Marshall Atkinson explains how to breathe life back into your customer service skills

I’ve been thinking a lot about customer service lately. Mostly to do with the supply chain. Maybe my article title is a bit dramatic, but I want to make a point. There are superstars in this business, there are folks that are okay most of the time, and then there are those that just leave you shaking your head and mumbling to yourself.

I wrote another article about this topic, but I’m not going to publish it. That article was about a few suppliers who have utterly amazed me with their lack of customer service. So, luckily for you, I’m not using that one. It is the written equivalent of a Yosemite Sam tirade. “%#@*&@!%” at its cartoon best.

Instead, let’s explore the beating heart of customer service and what makes up the basic core expectations of that idea in the modern world.


This is critical because all customer service is based on helping the other person through a challenge. Whether it’s simply putting in an order, or actually solving a big problem, good customer service thrives on the quality of knowledge presented.

Does this mean customer service staff need to be experts? Not really. It means that they know how to obtain the knowledge easily. This is where the ability to find the answers and solve someone’s customer service riddle comes in handy.

So what makes someone go from the bumbling stooge to a rock star? Training. A good information system. Experience. A good support system. Probably many things. But what we want more than anything is fast, accurate and complete answers. How hard is that? Sometimes very difficult it seems.

For our industry, what happens when your online apparel ordering platform doesn’t load? That knowledge isn’t presented now. We order those blank shirts somewhere else.

What happens when only one person in the department knows the answer? It’s good to have an expert, but if they aren’t available it’s a huge issue.

What happens when the outside sales rep helps with training and support, and hands industry knowledge over to us like a gift on a silver platter? That company is linked to us forever.


Trust is established over time. Trust is also established in the aesthetics of how you present things. Do you have a website built that is easy to use to find answers? Do your staff have fact sheets, price lists and information at their fingertips to forward?

Why is trust important in customer service? Because without it, our natural inclination is to keep searching. And believe me, we will.

Trust in customer service is built when you do what you say you are going to do. Send that quote on time, with all the information and even a few more details that weren’t requested. That builds trust. For example, it’s not enough to just send me a quote with a part number. If someone sends me a quote with a part number, checks inventory levels and indicates that if it ships today I can have it Tuesday, well, that’s much better. See the difference?

If I don’t like the answer, or that quote…I may just go out and find another. However, if the answers are presented to me and I have a firm basis of trust with what I’m given, I’ll probably complete my order.

It’s okay if you don’t have the answer off the top of your head. Just say, “Let me look that up and I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.” Then, get back to me.


Personality they say, goes a long way. I agree. The absolute best customer service people are at ease with themselves. Nothing is forced. They are pleasant to talk to, humorous in their approach and sincere in their delivery.

This is a trait that can’t be taught. It’s just comes down to who the person is deep down inside. If you think about your best or favourite interactions with people in a professional setting, I’ll bet one or two really stick out in your mind. That could even be why you do business with that company.

When I think of the companies in our industry, each has its own flavour and personality, regardless of size. Some are very corporate; others, even though they are huge, work very hard at being human. You can tell the difference between the successful companies, the up-and-comers, and the ones that are struggling, just in their corporate personality.

I think that comes down to the leadership of the company. Who are they letting in to play ball with us? Frankly, there are a few people I’ve encountered over the years that I’m surprised even have a job. And what’s even more amazing to me is that there never seems to be a change. I know what I would do.


This is a big one. Awesome customer service people can think ahead. Waiting to see what will happen is sometimes the worst thing you can do.

Follow up to make sure that the delivery is on track, the tracking number was sent, the last part of that order is being completed on time or, my favourite, review their order history to see if they can help with something that always comes up annually.

What I like about proactive customer service people is that they think ahead and anticipate your question or problem. They aren’t just shoving orders in the system like a robot, but actually being mindful about each one. What could go wrong? What needs to happen, and in what order?

They also frequently check up on all orders in their queue and if something doesn’t look right they will investigate.

Whenever I get an email question from a customer service rep outlining a potential challenge, offering a suggestion to solve it and asking what my opinion is, at that point I’d always think how lucky I am to be partnering with this supplier. That always counteracts the low price point argument that their competitors are always raving about. Sometimes price just doesn’t matter as much.

Detail oriented

The devil is always in the detail. Great customer service people have to have the ability to comprehend what’s needed and read a purchase order, email or work order thoroughly. If something gets missed, this could potentially be a huge problem.

One time when I had to order a part, I sent the manufacturer the model number and serial number of the equipment as the part I needed wasn’t listed in the owner’s manual or on their parts section of their website. I traded emails with a rep regarding some questions, and then they stated that they could only help me if I provided the model number and serial number of the unit. Doh!

I think sometimes we go too fast in our work and just gloss over the details. Like some lazy speed reading course. Zip. I’m done.

Getting the details right means slowing down. Make some notes on a pad. What does this mean? What does that say? Great reps get the details right as they practice good reading habits.

Look after the people already at the party

A lot of money is spent in this industry on marketing. I see the ads. I go to the trade shows and visit the booths. You do too. All that is wasted money when the actual business practice and habits of our suppliers don’t match up to that glossy photograph of perfection. The real truth is practiced in the daily grind. What happens then? Sometimes it surpasses the photo. Sometimes it’s like getting that cheeseburger that looks like a rhinoceros sat on it before it was served to you. Something just doesn’t add up.

The first rule of business should be to keep the customers you have. Yes, invest in ways to obtain more business… but don’t forget about all the people already at your party. They need you to show them support and love too.

That’s what customer service is all about.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.