Vladimir Gendelman is an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member from Detroit and the founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc, the standard bearer of online folder printing. We found out what lessons Vladimir learned from his brush with bankruptcy.
Growing up as a creative-minded child, I lived in a country where new ideas and innovations weren't always welcome. The Soviet Union's limited, low-quality products and unhelpful customer service frustrated me. By the time I immigrated to the U.S. with my parents at age fifteen, the consumer situation in the Soviet Union had left an indelible impression on me.
In the early 2000's, I ran my own computer repair shop in southeastern Michigan. One day, a customer told me that he'd unsuccessfully searched for branded presentation folders for his business. "Can you make me some company folders?" he asked.
Wanting to help my client, I said yes and set out to research similar products--only to learn none existed. Instead, I came up with my own design, which my customer loved. That's when I founded Company Folders, Inc. My goal was to provide a wide selection of high-quality products and excellent customer service. With that in mind, I began marketing my products online and building up a highly skilled team. Company Folders' future looked bright.
Nine years later, I lay in bed at night, pretending to sleep so my wife wouldn't worry. The stress of Company Folders' impending bankruptcy kept me awake. A string of financial problems in the spring of 2012 had put my company on the verge of collapse, and I was running out of ideas to save it. Then one night it hit me: My brand's only hope for recovery was our customers themselves.
What began as an interest in customer service became an obsession. I sat down with the marketing team and asked, "What would we do if we weren't broke right now?" We tossed out a lot of ideas, but two stuck: a blog and a design gallery aimed at helping graphic designers do their jobs better.
In our situation, it made sense to charge people to subscribe to those resources, but we wouldn't have done that if we weren't struggling. We decided to offer them for free. Our marketing team was wholeheartedly dedicated to preparing the blog and gallery. Privately though, I think we all wondered if we had just ripped another hole in an already-sinking ship.
What happened next surprised everyone. The new resources were so wildly successful with our clients, most of whom work with designers or are designers themselves, that we soon gained thousands of online followers.
We were thrilled with our customers' response, which was just the boost Company Folders needed to start its recovery. Seeing our customers step up and engage with us was motivational, and we wanted to up the customer service ante again.
Two years later, Company Folders had financially recuperated, putting us in a prime position to offer our customers an unprecedented service: a 365-day quality guarantee. Most printers only give customers 7-14 days to request replacements for defective products. With the one-year warranty, customers put defective products aside as they used good products and requested replacements at the end of the year.
Our customers loved the quality guarantee, but we soon realized that some businesses take two or three years to distribute several thousand folders. We didn't want to leave those customers out, so we eliminated the one-year time limit. We're kicking off 2016 with a new lifetime warranty that offers free replacements at any time after purchase for products that have inherent manufacturing blemishes or that stop functioning properly.
We've already received an enthusiastic response to the new initiative, but other printers aren't in a hurry to follow suit. Their hesitation is understandable. As a business owner, making a promise like this is intimidating; prioritizing the customer means risking something you value--whether time, money, or both.
Still, that's a risk every business owner should be willing to take. Customers are the single most valuable asset you have. Your business can't exist without them, so you want to make sure they're 100% comfortable working with you. To make someone else comfortable, you have to sacrifice some of your own comfort.
Making customers a priority did more than rescue Company Folders from financial ruin. In fact, my desire to help a customer in my computer repair shop thirteen years ago is the reason Company Folders got started. Other benefits include a rapid increase in web popularity and brand loyalty, our recent ranking on the Inc. 5000 list, and the joy my team and I have when serving the people who supported us in our darkest hour. I hope other businesses will take note and build similar customer service frameworks into their own success stories.