About 10 years ago I added a Faber-Castell E-Motion Maple Wood pencil to my arsenal of writing implements. It was probably an impulse buy, although I can't imagine spending anywhere near the current list price of $35 on a whim. Still, I am an inveterate note taker and am always looking for something magical that will make the words flow more easily from mind to paper or screen. Ask me about the bookshelf filled with speech-to-text software sometime.
I immediately fell in love with my E-Motion. It uses thick, smooth- flowing lead that's similar to the "copy pencils" that were common at newspapers in the days of typewriters and hot type. The pudgy barrel nestles nicely in the crook between my thumb and forefinger, and the wood barrel is, well, more sensual than plastic or metal. I've used it constantly, and am in a panic whenever I've misplaced it.
This fall, something happened to the mechanism that holds and advances the lead. I looked up Faber-Castell online wondering if they might, perchance, have a repair service. Once upon a time, I knew from experience, Sheaffer Pens stood behind its finer "White Dot" products with a lifetime warranty. It also had a staff of crack craftsman in Fort Madison, Iowa, to repair them. Then Bic took over Sheaffer in the late Nineties to the detriment of both its policies and the quality of its service. By 2002, things had deteriorated to such a point that I a wrote to say that I was just going to leave two Sheaffer sterling silver pens I owned in the drawer except for special occasions. There went my $5 a year in refills!
To my delight, I found that Faber-Castell had a webpage dedicated to repairs and that its products carry a lifetime warranty. There's also an 800 phone number for questions that has an actual extension, and the instructions for returning a product named one Renée Lamb. I wrapped up my pencil, enclosed a note, and shipped it off to her just before Thanksgiving.
As I was to learn, Renée Lamb is no fictional character cooked up by the marketing department. Nor is her assistant in the customer relations department, Michelle O'Meara, who sent me an email on Nov. 23 to let me know that my pencil had arrived, assessment would soon begin and I should expect it back in about four weeks.
Let's cut to the chase and say that with the holidays intervening, it was more like eight weeks before a box with the pencil arrived on my front stoop. When I opened it, I was both delighted and amazed.
First, the pencil worked again. Second, the wood barrel, whose veneer had faded from constant use, looked liked it had been buffed. (I later learned that Lamb had personally decided to replace it.) There was a package of lead refills enclosed, as well as a catalogue that others afflicted with a passion for fine writing instruments will understand my appreciation for. A note hand-written with a fountain pen topped all this off:
Dear Mr. Forbes,
Thank you very much for your patience. I have corrected the problem under warranty and I've added spare leads for you as well. If you should require future service, please do not hesitate to contact me. I will be happy to assist you.
A business card with Renée's contact information was enclosed. Now when was the last time you got service like this?
I called Lamb last week to tell her how pleased I was by the experience. She apologized for the repair having taken longer than usual because of the holidays. I learned that she and O'Meara, who is a part-timer, personally handle about 500 customer inquiries a year, ranging from catalogue requests to the actual repairs.
"We take a one-on-one personal approach," she says. "We've come to learn that it is very much appreciated."
I asked her if that approach was borne of the overarching culture at Faber-Castell. She said it was a combination of two cultures -- that of the German parent company that is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year and of Creativity for Kids, which manufactures arts and crafts products for "children of all ages" and is itself celebrating its 35th year of operation. The two companies merged in 1999 and the next year Faber-Castell moved its U.S. operations from New Jersey to Creativity for Kids' home in Cleveland.
"When Count Tony [Count Anton von Faber-Castell, the great-great-grandson of Baron Lothar von Faber, who took over the family firm in 1839] met with Phyllis [Brody] and Evelyn, [Greenwald, the co-founders of Creativity for Kids] they realized they had so many things in common and wanted to join together to grow and distribute all over the world," Lamb says. And that's exactly what happened, with each company expanding its presence in the other's areas of distribution. It's also a "pretty unique" combination of "family-oriented" values, says Lamb.
The company takes feedback from consumers very seriously, according to Lamb. But its real secret sauce is as obvious as a pinch of salt. In fact, it's what we might think of as the golden rule for customer service: "I also take into consideration my personal experiences of how I'm handled as a consumer and how my issues are addressed," Lamb told me.
If I should ever lose my Faber-Castell E-Motion Maple Wood pencil, I will pay $35 for a replacement without hesitation. And a matching pen is already on my wish list for Father's Day. The Sheaffer pens mostly remain in the drawer.