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Published: Friday, 7/1/2011

Technology enhances customer service

Small businesses embrace digital feedback

NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK -- In Lynn Milos' other business endeavors as a caterer and private chef, customer service was old school and face to face -- the longstanding marketplace advantage enjoyed by small businesses over big businesses.

Then Ms. Milos founded Culinary Twist in early 2010 with her husband, Eric Martel, to make and sell three exotic sauces called Bora Bora, Baja, and Maya Bay. Selling through a distributor and West Coast food stores and specialty stores, Ms. Milos found the sudden disconnection with her customers disconcerting. In-store product tastings helped, but she knew she could not afford them or the personal time commitment on a continuing basis, which is why she was excited to learn of the high-tech offerings of a feedback-management company, Opinion Lab.

Opinion Lab's software allows Culinary Twist, in Foster City, Calif., to interact remotely with smartphone-toting shoppers -- even while they are still in the store.

Nothing is old school about this or a wave of other high-tech customer service initiatives.

In some instances, such as at Zingerman's delicatessen in Ann Arbor, the digitally driven service enhancements remain internal and invisible to customers.

For 12 years, Zingerman's has captured customer comments, but until recently they were captured on paper forms.

Storing comments digitally makes it easier to analyze them, said Maggie Bayless, managing partner of ZingTrain, a business seminar division.

"We can now sort by types of complaints, customer name or period of time," Ms. Bayless said. "For example, as we go into the holidays, it's possible to pull the data for the holiday season a year ago and see what problems we were having and identify: What do we need to remind people to watch for this year?"



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