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INTERNET RETAILING AWARDS 2014 Cult Pens founders Simon and Amanda Walker on what customers mean to their business

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We’re asking companies shortlisted in the Internet Retailing Awards 2014 to tell us about themselves. This week, Simon and Amanda Walker, owners and founders of Cult Pens, describes how its approach to customer service has evolved over time.

Cult Pens is successful because our customers love us. Our customers love us because we have an enormous range; we know our products; and we provide a fantastic service. It seems simple enough, but we never set out thinking that service needed to be a focus, because doing it badly always struck us as much harder work in the end. We built what we hoped was a clear and simple website, and ran it with the sort of customer service that we would expect to receive as customers.

Nothing fancy, no extravagant promises, no meaningless declarations; but also no phone menus, no returns numbers, no inexplicable delays. We can spend nearly as long trying to find a compatible refill for a long-obsolete but much-loved pen, as we do putting together a large corporate order. The former is much more fun, even if it usually only generates a £5 sale.

A great customer services team is only part of the whole customer experience. Range is hugely important to us. We stock things that nobody else would dream of – obscure pencil eraser refills for example – because we think it’s important. We deal with nearly 12,000 products, many of which are really difficult to source, but all of them are someone’s absolute favourite.

Even the best customer services team will be constantly on the back foot if our operation doesn’t match. So we keep a lot of stock; and we turn orders around same day wherever possible, sending via a minimum of first class post. Customers are constantly amazed to find their pens on the doormat the day after ordering.

Over time it became apparent from phone and email conversations with our customers that a lot of them are pretty obsessed about their pens. We once had a chap on the phone virtually in tears because his favourite rollerball had been discontinued. “I’ve spent years finding the perfect pen and now it’s gone!” he wailed. It’s hard to describe the relief you hear in people who hesitantly phone us, looking for the pen they’ve used for 30 years, which they suddenly find they can no longer buy on the high street, when they find they can buy them from us with no trouble whatsoever.

We received plenty of unsolicited positive feedback, but we wondered what customers who didn’t tend to contact us thought. So we signed up for a third-party review service and crossed our fingers. Nothing prepared us for the tide of comments this unleashed. Plenty of fulsome praise for our service, gratifyingly, but also the declarations about their relationships with what they were buying – ‘…stationery junkie…’, ‘…pen obsessive…’, ‘…penaholic…’, ‘…my inner pen geek…’. One recent reviewer said: “I’ve used this seller now for several years now and I can honestly say that my life – and that of my family – would be poorer without Cult Pens.” Worryingly, we think he’s being serious.

We now have 16,800 reviews at the time of writing – 97% of which are 5-star. It’s a fantastic resource – useful feedback for our operation; reassurance for customers who don’t yet know us; and a great morale-booster in the company.

If we still needed it, confirmation that our customers like and trust us came when we launched a Christmas Appeal in 2013. Customers could ‘buy’ packs of 10 pens from us, and at the end of the appeal we would ship all these, along with a matching amount from us, to the Pens 4 Kids project in Africa. To our astonishment, in the space of 6 weeks over 1000 customers donated and we shipped 21,000 pens in January, which have been distributed to schoolchildren all over Tanzania.

It can sometimes be hard work dealing with customers who are so obsessed or so knowledgeable or so downright fussy, but being able to talk to these customers is what sets us apart from the much bigger generalist retailers. We’ll never find it easy to compete on price or IT spend with the big boys, so we try not to lose sight of why our customers love us.

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