When the pandemic closed most non-essential businesses earlier this year causing massive layoffs and furloughs, customer service was also one of the casualties. In some businesses, as companies cut back, there was no one to answer the phones or monitor online help lines. Customers were on their own.

However, other companies, especially those in the promotional products industry, quickly sprang into action with transparency, responsiveness and innovation to deliver the level of service their customers had always expected—and at the core of this effort were many dedicated and hard-working employees.

This month, PPB recognizes 12 Service Superheroes who were selected from 62 nominations submitted by co-workers, bosses and clients in an industry-wide search this summer. As these individuals prove, customer service is not a title but an attitude, a calling and a mission to serve others.

Now in its 10th year, PPB’s program has recognized more than 100 of the most skilled and admired customer service professionals in the promotional products industry.

Director of Accounts
Magellan Promotions
Years at this company: 4

Alyssa Adriansen was nominated by her direct supervisor, Michael Wolaver, who is also owner of distributor Magellan Promotions in West Allis, Wisconsin. He hired Adriansen four years ago as account manager from her previous advertising job with a large broadcast television company, and, in that time, has promoted her twice. “Since Alyssa joined our business four years ago, she has been consistently highly complimented and beloved by her clients,” Wolaver says. “The specific feedback we receive is that Alyssa is responsive, helpful, knowledgeable and trustworthy. She is very organized, doesn’t gloss over details and takes her job very seriously. Her retention of clients is extremely high because of the service level she provides. To measure our service level, we conduct a net promoter score and she scored as World Class, which is extremely difficult to achieve.”

He adds that when there is an issue with an order, Adriansen is adept at finding a fair resolution with the supplier that also works well for the client. “She is great at minimizing any hassle that the client experiences when orders go awry, absorbing the brunt of that issue with a clear head and making the process seamless for the client.”

In addition to handling a full account load, she also takes the lead on additional projects to help further the business, handles the continuous training of all team members and helps the team navigate and resolve issues with shipping, pricing, stock and more on a daily basis. “Alyssa is very in-tune with not just how the team is doing on a work level, but on a personal level. She takes the time to check in on how we are all doing, provides positive reinforcement and is an amazing support to all of the team,” Wolaver says.

How the pandemic has affected her approach: The pandemic has made me get more creative in order to deliver stellar customer service. Whether it’s dealing with a dog barking in the background or stock issues and shipping delays, I’ve found the most success by remaining as transparent as possible. Everyone understands what a unique year it has been, and I’ve been able to maintain good customer service as well as grow relationships through honest conversations.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I’m inspired to go above and beyond in order to grow the client relationship. I enjoy working with the same people year after year and I find that an excellent customer service experience will lead to long-running relationships.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and show empathy. Whether it is a simple quote or a problem order, I always try to make the process as simple as possible for the customer.

Best personal customer service experience: In my experience, Gill Studios has some of the best customer service in the industry. Often with UPS issues or other things that come up, they will take responsibility even if it isn’t their fault, and reprint or fix the problem, whatever we need. I find that they prioritize the partnership and ease of service over “being right,” which is appreciated both by me and my customers. It’s something that I strive to do with my clients and enjoy receiving a similar experience from a supplier.


Chief Technology Officer
LogoSpeed Promotional Products
Years at this company: 2

Destiny Bieller joined LogoSpeed, a distributor in Westerville, Ohio, as an administrative assistant, and within two months, she had proven herself and was promoted to the role of webstore manager and later to chief technology officer. She credits her previous experience in running a call center and planning community events for a local health-care network for helping her learn the importance of exemplary service.

Nominator and company owner Scot Schreiber calls Bieller a “dream employee,” and admires her ability to take complete ownership of the project she’s given and deliver excellence to her co-workers and customers every time. “In my 25 years in the business world, I have never met a more driven and focused, yet kind and pleasant team player, who takes it upon herself to learn additional skills in her time off to make herself more efficient and valuable at her job. I have never seen such poise in a young person [Bieller is 23] who, in a major presentation, can explain the technical backend of how webstores are built (by her) and her work to C-level executives, and explain it in a way that they understand.”

As far as her dedication to service, Schreiber cites this recent example: “Destiny had built a simple store for a customer and it was ready to launch the next day when our customer told us they could not use the site internally, because their IT group said it was not secure enough. Destiny spent the entire evening researching different technologies, found one, then completely rebuilt the store so it would be ready to launch the following day. She always goes above and beyond to make sure we keep our promises to our customers and deliver exceptional customer service every time.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: Thankfully, due to the way our company quickly pivoted at the beginning of the pandemic, I was able to continue to give my customers fantastic customer service with no gaps or issues. Since this was such a stressful time for everyone, we were vigilant in making sure there was no change in our level of customer service. I was able to focus on helping them to the best of my ability while ensuring our transition to working from home was a smooth one.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I am most inspired to go above and beyond for my customers because I am passionate that they receive the best service they can get. Sometimes that means working extra hours to make sure their deadline is met and that any potential issues are mitigated before they even know [about it].

No. 1 tip to share with others: Truly care about the customers. When you care about your customers, it is easier to put yourself in their shoes. This will make it a blessing to help them with anything they bring to you.

Best personal customer service experience: The best example of amazing customer service I have ever received was during the pandemic with a multiline rep in our industry. It was so impressive because he was taking calls day and night to help when our products got stuck in customs. He did everything he could to get us replacement products so that our clients could have the PPE products they needed.


Client Experience Creator & Sales Relationship Manager
Innovatex Solutions, Inc.
Years with the company: 6

Susie Goobie, MAS, joined Richmond Hill, Ontario-based distributor Innovatex Solutions Inc. six years ago in a part-time administrative role and grew into a customer service/sales role—and a full-time position. She’s worked in the promotional products industry for more than 25 years and was previously sales and marketing coordinator with a writing instrument company at its Canadian facility.

Nominator Ann Baiden owns Innovatex Solutions and works closely with Goobie on a daily basis. “As our offices are across from each other, I have firsthand insight into the positive experiences she creates for her customers. She truly goes above and beyond to ensure that she understands her clients’ needs, their ROI goal and that they achieve results. We all know that the occasional order can get derailed. When it does, Susie ensures that her clients are taken care of and works tirelessly to find fair solutions that work.”

For example, Baiden says a long-time client recently placed an order for face masks, approved the proof and the order was sent to production. “Suddenly, a mandate was sent from their head office stating they were not allowed to supply masks to their employees. The decals for the masks had already been produced, and Susie worked nonstop to find a solution that worked for everyone, even though the client had approved everything and was responsible for the purchase. The long-term relationship was much more important to her than one sale. The supplier appreciated her going the extra mile to find a way to use the decals, and that she took responsibility for them. The client’s trust was deepened by her transparency and the lengths that she exercised to help them out of a situation that they knew was their own fault. What could have resulted in a negative experience was turned into a positive by her ability to be both patient and real.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: We have always worked from home and the office as we are totally set up to work online anywhere. Nothing changed too much as it was easy to adapt. We do lots of Zoom meetings now so we can meet with our team and discuss what we need to do. We have a great team.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: The outcome is almost guaranteed when you go above and beyond what customers expect. I always want to make the customers feel like I’m smiling either behind the phone or my emails. When you approach anything you do, positivity vs. negativity guarantees a smile and it usually rubs off on the recipient. Always try to have light conversations and make them feel comfortable. This way it’s a win-win for both parties. It doesn’t cost anything to make someone happy.

No. 1 tip to share with others: You have a choice. Treat people well, go above and beyond, and the success for you to succeed is in the palm of your hand. Nobody feels good not helping another person. It’s not a “feel-good” feeling.

Best personal customer service experience: I had great customer service when my husband and I traveled in Eastern Canada. We went to a steak restaurant in Halifax and had the best waitress. She was genuinely happy to serve us and struck up conversations with a huge smile. She went out of her way to write down places we should visit and made our stay for the two weeks fantastic. She was a student and working to put herself through school. We exchanged emails and I still correspond with her today. She graduated university and is now a teacher. She deserved the best tip as she went above and beyond to make our night special.


Director of Sales Onboarding
HALO Branded Solutions
Years at this company: 45

This month Pam Gray will celebrate 45 years at HALO Branded Solutions. Her journey at the Sterling, Illinois-based distributor has taken her through a variety of roles: filing clerk, word processing, customer service rep, customer service supervisor, customer service manager and director of customer service to her current position as director of sales onboarding. Over the years, she’s proven herself again and again, and garnered the admiration and respect of many, including nominator, direct supervisor and senior vice president of operations, Dawn Olds, MAS.

“Pam is responsible for onboarding new sales recruits, teaching them the ropes and helping our staff understand the new recruits’ unique business requirements—all at the same time,” explains Olds, who has worked with Gray for 32 years. “This not only requires a deep understanding of the business and industry, but a keen ability to put herself in the salesperson’s shoes and be their advocate. She is relentless in her follow-up. When something goes wrong, she looks for the root cause so the issue does not happen again.”

While many times the term “customer service” is associated with external clients, internal clients—company employees and colleagues—also expect exceptional service, and Gray delivers.

“A new recruit recently had a large, complex opportunity that required coordination between several groups,” explains Olds. “Pam took the time to thoughtfully write out detailed requirements for each group and sent them to everyone who would touch the project, so the entire team had perspective on the project end to end. She then followed up with each person to make sure each step occurred as planned.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: Overall, the pandemic has not hindered my ability to provide service. Much of my work has always been handled over the phone or email; solving problems continues to be done that way. I miss not being able to talk to people in person, because I view myself as a teacher at HALO. I enjoy sharing experiences with people or providing a different perspective on situations. That is how I grew in my career and I feel that is still important in today’s work environment. I try to communicate more via phone, Teams or Zoom. Being able to see someone, even if it is on a computer monitor, is important.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: It is important to me that people are pleased with the outcome of a situation. The reputation that HALO has built over the years means a lot to me. We do the right thing and treat people properly. Everyone involved in making sure product is delivered correctly takes teamwork. Many people are needed to make it work, and everyone has to want to do their best.

No. 1 tip to share with others: You have to enjoy helping people, solving problems and learning to develop creative solutions to any situation. There is no better feeling than when you have accomplished the task that seemed impossible when it started. Knowing you helped someone be a hero is a terrific feeling.

Best personal customer service experience: I was working with a vendor in the industry and we had a very tight deadline that we had to make. Normal processing time was a few days and we did not have a few days. Everyone I spoke with at the company knew how important this order was and did everything they could to get the shipment out on time. I could feel the sincerity of each person I spoke to and everyone was involved in helping make this happen. Communications were consistent as they kept me advised so I could let our client know we were not going to let them down. I know the company leadership values the people who work there and empowers people to do their best each and every day. It made me feel good to be working with a great company that wanted to help me achieve my goal.


Client Care Specialist
ROBYN Promotions
Years with this company: 14.5

Sara Harrington, CAS, learned the fine points of customer service early on in her career while managing a retail store for a home décor company. Part of her job was to make customers feel welcome and eager to do business with the company. Her current position with Oklahoma City-based distributor ROBYN draws on those skills and has given her plenty of opportunity to grow as a customer care professional. Now, as a member of the company store team, Harrington provides a direct connection between clients and all departments at ROBYN, from ecommerce to fulfillment, ensuring that all store programs are successful.

The role is the perfect fit for Harrington and the distributor. “Sara’s attention to detail, diligence and creativity has made her an invaluable part of the ROBYN team for almost 15 years,” says her nominator and the company’s vice president of business development Eric Granata, CAS. “She fiercely advocates for her clients both here and with our decorators. Sara is also a creative thinker. If an order begins to go sideways, she will save the day with out-of-the box thinking that gets everything back on track.” He also is impressed with her broad knowledge of her clients’ brands and aesthetics. “She works hard to develop an understanding of what her buyers need and is able to anticipate which products will have the most interest from her buyers,” he says.

An example was a holiday gift project for a large client. The project included assembly and the client was very specific about how they wanted their brand and products to be presented. Granata says Harrington worked with their assembly team to carefully train each individual on how to place the items in the box, fold the tissue paper without wrinkling it and package the items with precision. “Her attention to detail was unmatched and the whole time she would take photos of the process and send them to the client for approval. She also checked each finished box to make sure it was how her client wanted it to be.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: With so many extra variables added to nearly every order, over-communicating and trying to inform ahead of any delivery/stock/other issue has been key. I wouldn’t say I’ve had to change, just make a few adjustments and stay on hyper client-care mode.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I have a deeply rooted work ethic (from my parents, I think), which makes it nearly second-nature to go above and beyond to make the customer as happy as possible. I expect to be treated well when I am the customer, so I provide the same to my customers.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes, think reasonably and do what is right to put a smile on their face with the whole process.

Best personal customer service experience: When on a trip, we stopped at a little boutique. While my purchase was small, the way I was treated by the shop owner/cashier made me want to go back and shop there again. She made it personal, took time to make me feel important and shared her joy. That is the way I pray my customers feel when working with ROBYN.


Account Manager
Years with this company: 20

Jennifer Markulin’s level of customer care is so extraordinary that it’s the “benchmark by which I measure all other customer service representatives,” says her nominator and client Ashley Moss, a sales professional at distributor Geiger. She says Markulin is extremely responsive and helpful, and if a product Moss needs is not available, her rep is quick and thorough at suggesting alternatives. “If it’s a complicated project, she’s always willing to talk through the logistics and help me best plan how to tailor the order so that it meets the customer’s needs, but also flows through their system with ease. If we run into an issue, she is fantastic in helping us with solutions and resolutions. She understands the importance of the client relationship and helps us be successful in what we do,” says Moss.

After working in administration for a local university, Markulin joined the Leed’s team 20 years ago and worked her way up through roles as account service rep, key contact, corporate phone monitor and service specialist before earning her current position as account manager for the Kensington, Pennsylvania-based supplier.

Moss recalls one of her many memorable customer service experiences involving Markulin. “I had a customer who had a complicated wearables order involving a systems jacket that had to be decorated on both the inner and outer shells, in three different locations on each,” she says. “Most of the decoration locations were non-standard, which required getting product and decoration reviews for each decoration method and location. Jen facilitated all of that and then helped me make sure that the order flowed through their system well. It was not a large order, but the attention to detail and assistance was exceptional.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: I personally feel that the pandemic has brought me even closer to my customers. We talk more personally on how we are dealing with the changes and are trying to remain positive. It is nice to hear so many of my customers are feeling exactly as I am and it’s not just me stressing too much.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I value my customer service skills. I continually dedicate my efforts toward improving what my customers hope to achieve from my services. I always strive to go above and beyond even when it is not expected from me. My goal is to always stand out and know that my customers can always count on me.

No. 1 tip to share with others: It is very important to have clear communication skills, not to over-promise and most importantly to be an effective listener.

Best personal customer service experience: I ordered a cosmetic product from Rodan & Fields that a friend had suggested to me because she strongly liked it. I tried it for a few weeks, and I didn’t really notice it working for me as it did for my friend. I was very disappointed and upset because the item was very expensive. I called the company and found out they stand behind their products 100 percent. The customer service representative showed me true empathy and expressed her concern that I was not happy but disappointed. The company gave me a full credit refund for the product and sent me a few samples of other products to try. I was hesitant to give their products another try but I did find something different among the samples, so it was a win-win.


Technical Support Representative 
Years at this company: 2.5

During Sheri Mischke’s relatively short tenure at business services company BrightStores, her problem-solving abilities have earned her the admiration and respect from many of her support and sales team colleagues. Among them, six nominated Mischke for Service Superhero citing her patience, knowledge and uncanny ability to remain calm amid the occasional crisis. “It takes a special person to be the lead customer phone contact of a company store software business,” says nominator and BrightStores’ vice president, Tanya Ignacek. “The topic is technical, but the clients sometimes are not. So, it’s important that this person is someone who is technical but also offers understanding and patience. Sheri is that special person. She cares about helping our customers and it shows in everything she does.”

Before joining Denver, Colorado-based BrightStores, Mischke worked in technical customer support and project management, mainly with SaaS (Software as a Service) companies and supported a warehousing software product where she gained knowledge of the order fulfillment life cycle.

Mischke always go above and beyond to solve a client’s problem, says nominator and technical support rep, Akhil Shastry, who was one of last year’s Service Superheroes. “We had a client come to us with a very specific scenario on how they wanted to offer something on their company store. Sheri worked with them on multiple calls to understand their needs and come up with the best solution to collect the data from shoppers. Sheri works diligently to solve challenging issues for clients every single day.”

Colleague and nominator Lauri Rohan adds that Mischke never loses patience with clients, no matter how frustrating the situation might be. “One of my clients is particularly uncomfortable using computers, and I have overheard her walking them through the same process over and over again until they understand and feel comfortable using the feature. She truly is the person I always want on the other end of my support calls.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: Since we are based in Colorado, we were all set up to work remotely in case of a blizzard or other weather event, so we were able to seamlessly transition to a remote support model. As the world changed overnight, so did the promotional products industry and our client’s stores had to adapt as well. We have been busy helping our clients adjust their product configurations and stores to meet their customers’ new requirements.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I’ve certainly had my share of questions with software products I’ve used, and I know what it’s like to be in a position of needing assistance. I try to provide our customers with the level of service and professionalism I appreciate when I’m in their shoes.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Listen and look a little deeper. I work hard to answer the specific question a client is asking, but as they are summarizing their requirements, I take a quick look at their entire store configuration to see if there is anything else I can offer, so they don’t find out the hard way that something is not configured to meet their requirements.

Best personal customer service experience: My car had just been serviced and broke down on the way home. My mechanic came to my car on the roadside to fix the issue. I appreciated his willingness to admit the mistake and make it right. I still use his service years later.


Creative Director
CREATIVE Promotional Marketing Agency
Years at this company: 15

Anna Paczkowska realizes the importance of customer service, having learned it in a job where her livelihood depended on it—waiting tables. For 10 years, she held down two jobs—freelance graphic designer and waitress. “I know how good service translates to happy customers. This experience allowed me to understand the importance and value in providing exceptional customer service,” she says.

Fifteen years ago, Paczkowska joined Edmonton, Alberta, distributor CREATIVE Promotional Marketing Agency as a graphic design specialist. Currently, she’s responsible for design associated with company events, marketing campaigns, web development, SEO, company culture videos, project galleries, graphic design, brand management and more.

Kelly Tran, one of four colleagues who nominated Paczkowska, explains her interaction with the entire team. “Anna works to understand the purpose of each project to ensure what she designs or creates is exactly what the client wants—sometimes even making recommendations that exceed clients’ expectations of what they were wanting. The more creative a project, the more Anna thrives.”

Nominator and colleague Rob Mandryk says, “Anna is integral in the creative and developmental process of these projects and comes up with amazing solutions to make them successful. She brings amazing creativity, gumption and perseverance to give these projects life. Any roadblocks she hits are met with tenacity to figure out solutions.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: I am busier now than I ever was before. Most of my design work was already mainly via email communication so that has not changed much. We pivoted early in the pandemic into new digital marketing services and virtual marketing assistance. These days, I am busy as we navigate around many challenges our clients are having with marketing during this time and supporting them as they are trying to reinvent themselves.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I truly love my job. Because I love design, marketing and brand communication, I set a high standard for myself in every project. I try to look at each final project, not just through my client’s eye, but their audience’s eyes because most of the time those are the people whose attention we’re really trying to get.

No. 1 tip to share with others: You are a part of the brand. A person’s opinion of a company is not only shaped by the visual aspects of the brand but also by all of the interactions with their people. And in the moment when you are providing customer service to the client, you are shaping their overall view of the company you work for. You are providing value to the company brand and you have the power to influence the client’s opinion of it.

Best personal customer service experience: I personally run an ecommerce site and drop-ship my products. When I first started, I used to stress so much about the possibility of my clients receiving a damaged product in the mail. What I realized through a few times when it actually happened, is that my producer/drop-shipper had my back, no questions asked. This shows me that they care and have the success of my business top of mind. Now, on the rare occasion that my customer notifies me of damage that occurred during shipping, I can confidently let them know that a new product will be on the way, priority mail, and no cost to them (or to me). This sort of assurance is so rarely found and means the world to me as a small-business owner. This obviously would not work for every business model and service provided, but if you can make your clients understand how much you care about them and their business, they will come back to you again and again.


Director of Operations
Stromberg Brands
Years at this company: 12

Customer service is often taken for granted, until it’s done wrong. So, when a company president not only recognizes but cheers what’s right about someone’s customer service performance, it’s clear that person is excelling in every aspect of the role. Michael Pastore is that person who, while not specifically holding a customer-service title, redefines what service means for StrombergBrand customers.

“Michael is truly a superhero because he ‘gets’ this promotional products business,” says Helen Stromberg, nominator and president of the Valley Cottage, New York, supplier. “He will bend over backwards to help a customer and does not care about leaving for the day until the job is done. Michael is so customer-friendly and makes concessions everywhere he can. He hates to say ‘no’ and he hates to disappoint.” She explains that during the height of the pandemic shutdown, not only was Pastore the only employee onsite running the office for six weeks, but he made sure that all customers were kept apprised of the situation. “He moved orders around to help us deliver as best we could and keep our customers happy. After 12 years of being with us, Michael knows everything that goes on in our company—he knows how the owners think, and he proactively offers ideas to help the company succeed.”

Stromberg recalls a large overseas order. The distributor remembered, at the last minute, that it had multiple drop-shipments in various quantities. The order had just arrived at the supplier’s factory and the deadline to accomplish the drop-shipments was unrealistic. “We did not know how this would get done,” remembers Stromberg. “But Michael stepped in and said, ‘This is such a large and important order, and we must make it happen for them.’ He figured out how to do it—12,000 umbrellas and more than 200 different drop-shipments. He got it done in record time and in a seamless manner. This customer has been loyal to us for many years since and given us many repeat orders.”

How the pandemic has affected his approach: Working from home was a challenge (all of our phone calls were coming to my house) because our customers were looking to get orders and samples shipped. For about a month this wasn’t possible, and I hated to disappoint anyone who was calling, even though they were very understanding. The main challenge was not having all of our usual supplies available to be able to service the customer. Luckily, with technology today to access systems and our website that has all of our product information, I was able to handle most calls that came in. (After 12 years, I know a lot of the information to be able to help customers with their questions.) Later, we pushed to open production again as soon as we could to get those orders out. The pandemic has made me realize just how important each and every sale (large and small) is not only to our customers, but to us. Business is already difficult to come by on a regular day, but in today’s environment it is even more important, and I stress to all of my team the importance of doing a great job on all orders.

His inspiration to deliver great service: Honestly, going above and beyond has been ingrained in me my entire life, set by examples from my parents. My father dedicated his entire life to working extremely hard to not only provide for his family but to also do an outstanding job for his company. I know nothing less than giving 110 percent and this example comes from him. Doing the best job you can is just what you do to show respect for your boss, your client and, most importantly, for yourself. Always.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Stay organized and get things done as soon as you can. I find that when I get things done right away for a customer (or even in general), it not only serves them quicker, which makes them happy, but there is less likely the chance for an error or forgetting about it later. Especially in customer service, when things are happening so quickly, it is important to get things done and move right on to the next thing.

Best personal customer service experience: I just bought a new home and received the best service from the real estate agent. He was always available, knowledgeable, pleasant, realistic, honest, helpful—all the things you expect but don’t always get from a person when you are dealing with them in the business world. I had many interactions with professionals during the buying process and almost everyone fell short of this agent. I actually liked dealing with the guy and have respect for him in the way he handles himself. I would work with him again and I would feel comfortable recommending him.


Customer Service Extraordinaire
Years at this company: 7

Arlington, Texas-based distributor Logotricity’s website states the company exists for one reason: to make customers’ brands memorable. That all begins and ends with memorable customer service, and Zoe Payne is at the core of that mission.

“Zoe takes her responsibility seriously to provide superior service to our clients,” says her nominator and the company’s owner, Marty McGee. “She is incredibly fast, accurate and, above all, knowledgeable. Clients appreciate her fun approach to products and her professional approach to getting their orders done right the first time, every time.” McGee says seldom does a week go by without her receiving unsolicited praise from one client or another about Payne’s service. It all reflects back positively on the company that’s been in business since 1991.

McGee hired Payne in 2013 from a customer service job with a printing company and she counts it as one of her best decisions. For example, she recalls recently being able to attend an industry event and not worrying about what was happening back at the office. “While everyone else was dashing to call into the office, I was networking, confident that Zoe had the phones covered and would handle everything perfectly.” McGee also says Payne is excellent at finding exactly what the customer wants—even if they have no idea themselves. “Zoe is able to take a vague idea and run with it— and she always nails it. This is why our customers sing her praises and continue to come back, time after time. She is every salesperson’s and business owner’s dream.”

Payne’s customer service and follow-through skills are legendary among their clients, says McGee. “We have a large customer base at a nearby college. It is widely known that if you place an order with Zoe, the initial quote and mockup will be arriving in your inbox almost instantaneously. Although obviously that is a bit of an exaggeration, we’ve heard customers joke that it might arrive before the phone call actually ends. She is extraordinarily quick and accurate.”

Also, in recent months, as sales lagged during the COVID-19 lockdown, Payne took the initiative to reach out to key clients and suppliers to check in and see how they were faring. “While she’s quick to tell you that she is not a salesperson, she’s better at interacting on the phone with clients than any salesperson we’ve ever had,” says McGee. “As a result, our business is still strong; relationships are key, and Zoe is a treasure.”

How the pandemic has affected her approach: I have been working remotely since the end of March, but I am still able to provide the customer service that I expect of myself—nothing short of exceptional. I think everyone deserves the best, so that’s what I try to give them. Sometimes I give customers my cell phone number if I have an appointment or if I will be away from my desk for a period of time, and I’m definitely on the phone a little longer than a usual day since I have my desk at my house, so it’s easy to answer emails even after I’m supposed to be finished working for the day. But if a customer needs something, I’ll answer them despite what time it is.

Her inspiration to deliver great service: I respect and love working with our customers. I put myself in their position and think about what I would want to deal with as a customer, and then I go above that and try to do more. (I’ve always been a little of an overachiever. Lol!)

No. 1 tip to share with others: Deliver service as if you were the one getting the service—and do more.

Best personal customer service experience: Any time I have a problem with an online order, for example with Amazon, they are exceptional in dealing quickly and efficiently with customers. I had a package that never arrived, and they didn’t grill me or accuse me of receiving it and wanting my money back, they simply apologized and refunded my money so I could reorder the item. It was our mail carrier’s fault because they tend to leave packages outside the mailroom lockers, but Amazon took responsibility anyway because I’m their customer. They went above and beyond, and I love that! It’s why I’ll continue to buy through Amazon.


Vice President Business Development
Hit Promotional Products
Years at this company: 2.5

Marcus Sweeney sold group benefits in the financial industry and worked for other companies in the promotional products industry for 27 years before taking his current position at Hit Promotional Products two-and-a-half years ago in his Norwalk, Connecticut, home office. In that short time, his responsiveness and problem-solving skills have made a huge impression with customers, especially at distributor Jack Nadel International. Thirteen individuals at JNI nominated Sweeney for the honor, most describing him the same way: personable, patient and always available, answering client calls anytime day or night.

“I consider Marcus a Service Superhero because his availability, attention to detail, follow-through and personal touch make me feel like I’m the only person he is working with when I know he has many people to help throughout the day,” says one of his nominators, Scott Colton. “One example that comes to mind was a recent large order for a new client. Something went wrong with a shipment out of China (no fault of Hit’s) and Marcus was on top of it right away, offered multiple solutions and went well beyond to make sure my client was satisfied. How he handled it truly paid off as the order was delivered and the customer service Marcus provided helped me get a quick re-order.”

Nominator Ali Stone says, “He will see a quote go into our internal rep and then write me back and come up with a better way to run it or a longer production time with a lower price. He also stays on top of projects, makes sure the right samples get to the right places and will often throw something in that the client wasn’t even considering but will later love.”

In example after example, Sweeney’s nominators shared their stories. “He helps you get things done. He put together decks of PPE merchandise for us without even asking. No matter what you need, he is always willing to help,” says JNI’s Ilene Chait.

Another nominator, Sam Minster, says, “He never lets me down. If a problem occurs, he just fixes it. He’s also very creative, and never lets money get in the way. He’s also very proactive, and just a genuine guy.”

How the pandemic has affected his approach: One of the things that I love most about working in this industry is having face time with customers. I attend meetings and shows year-round. I remember flying home from San Diego on March 13. I never would have imagined that I’d still be home at this point. Working from home certainly meant changes for me—lots of Zoom meetings, tons of emails and phone calls. One thing that I learned long ago as a supplier is that it’s not so much about selling promotional products to your distributor customers, it’s about understanding their business needs. I’ve always asked lots of questions but, these days, the answers are quite different. It’s about changing how we service our customers based on how their needs have changed since the start of the pandemic. It’s all about creativity these days. Lots of what we do is in support of events, many of which are not taking place these days. With this, I’ve found that the product itself is not a solution, it’s more than this. Nowadays projects are much more involved. We’re kitting, fulfilling and drop-shipping more orders that we ever have. I’m proud to be part of Hit where we are quick to adapt. We’ve helped to keep folks employed at our company while helping many distributors with the answers to the challenging requests that we’re all facing these days.

His inspiration to deliver great service: For me it’s all about the relationships. I love the people whom I work with, and their happiness means a lot to me.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Be a good listener. People have lots to share. It’s about asking the right questions and doing something with the answers. You can choose to be a product pusher or a valued consultant to your customers.

Best personal customer service experience: As a frequent flyer, I am pretty much exclusively with Delta Airlines. I was flying home from a trip one day when I realized that I somehow misplaced my driver’s license. I can remember thinking about how I’d never get it back and how frustrating getting a replacement would be. As I was on my way home from the airport that evening, I received a phone call from the Delta Lounge at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. They mentioned that a guest had turned in my driver’s license, they had immediately put it in a FedEx envelope addressed to my home, and I had it the very next day.


Solutions Specialist
Crystal D
Years with this company: 12

Tom Warkel’s title clearly describes what he’s responsible for achieving at St. Paul, Minnesota, supplier Crystal D. But his aim to provide solutions extends not to just Crystal D customers but to colleagues at every level within the company. Warkel’s exemplary service is noticed across the organization and resulted in five nominations from the controller/purchasing manager and vice president of operations, to colleagues in business development and marketing.

While crises can have disastrous results on a company’s level of service, Warkel stepped up during the pandemic, working as part of a skeleton crew from home in March when Minnesota’s governor shut down all non-essential business. “Tom took care of every phone call and email that came in from every territory we have. He went above and beyond for not only his customers but the customers still working in his coworkers’ territories,” says nominator and colleague, Jen Jezierski. “Every single customer was treated as if they were the most important person, and Tom was able to answer as many questions as he could about ship dates based on information our governor was giving us. Tom is not only a superhero to our distributors, but he’s a superhero to us internally as well.”

Another nominator and vice president of operations, Kari Hurtis, says, “Tom is truly an advocate for our customers. His only goal is to leave the customer absolutely ‘wowed’ at the end of every experience.” She describes Warkel as knowledgeable in sales and recognition, logical and creative, and says he thrives on learning and shares that education with customers and their clients. “There is no idea that is too big for Tom,” she says. “He may not have answers immediately, but he will work tirelessly to make it work. His goal is to make sure the recipient feels nothing short of special and the customer looks nothing short of a hero.”

Nominator Cathy Klein, controller and purchasing manager, is equally impressed with how often Warkel goes beyond what’s expected to deliver a truly delightful customer experience. “If the customer sends in a request for a quote and Tom thinks there might be a better option, he not only supplies the information they asked for, but includes his ideas for their project as well.”

How the pandemic has affected his approach: It has actually made it easier as customers have had more time to dive deeper into opportunities. I love helping my clients look like rock stars to their customers.

His inspiration to deliver great service: [My inspiration comes from] working for an organization I am extremely proud of and refuse to let down. Every contact I have with a customer reflects not just on me, but on everyone at Crystal D.

No. 1 tip to share with others: Give customers what they ask for, then give them what they didn’t ask for but should have. Tip 1A: always make them laugh or smile.

Best personal customer service experience: The last time I got a haircut, I was told how handsome I was. Why was that impressive? See photo above (Lol!).  


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.