Miriam Brafman of Packlane: “Err on the side of generosity”

Err on the side of generosity. When faced with a decision point that involves doing something costly for the sake of a customer, always err on the side of giving the customer what they want within reason. For example, if an order is running late in production we don’t hesitate to ship overnight to meet […]

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Err on the side of generosity. When faced with a decision point that involves doing something costly for the sake of a customer, always err on the side of giving the customer what they want within reason. For example, if an order is running late in production we don’t hesitate to ship overnight to meet their deadline.

As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Miriam Brafman, Founder & CEO of Packlane.

As a designer, Miriam Brafman initially considered starting a design business, or perhaps an e-commerce site. But when she looked for a vendor who could provide customized shipping boxes for sending out future products, she came up empty-handed — save for a new business idea. “Everyone has packaging,” she says, and it seemed “so obvious” to her that a customized shipping-box service would already exist. But it did not, which is how she came to be the founder of Packlane, a Berkeley, Calif., company whose website lets brands of all sizes design and order personalized shipping and mailer boxes, as well as folding cartons.

Brafman started Packlane in 2015 and made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Manufacturing & Industry and has been featured in The Huffington Post and The Washington Post. Her start-up idea to provide unique packaging solutions and an easy-to-use online packaging designer engine launched Packlane.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up building and designing websites and falling in love with Graphic Design. I always knew that I wanted to work in technology and start my own business at the intersection of technology and design. When I noticed the trend in design-driven DTC businesses in 2014, I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunities to architect different business models around this trend and theme. That’s when I started looking into the packaging market — here was one of the most inspiring and foundational components of the branding and design stack, and the process of designing and ordering packaging was completely outdated. There were no packaging companies or existing websites that catered to this new crop of digitally native purchasers that were browsing for suppliers online and looking for a user-friendly experience. The opportunity was so obvious and so exciting for me that I dove right in and started building Packlane, which was envisioned as a kind of “moo or Vistaprint” for custom packaging.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I think my funniest mistake when I first started was desperately looking for a co-founder. I really wanted to start the company but didn’t think I could do it on my own, so I started frantically trying to recruit someone who could help me. That led to a lot of wasted energy and disappointment — most people aren’t capable of making that kind of commitment, so I learned quickly that I would need to do things myself if I wanted the company to succeed. It’s pretty hilarious to think back on the people I was potentially trying to be partnered with in starting the company — it’s so obvious in hindsight that they were not going to work out but I was just convinced that I needed any help I could get.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My parents were actually pretty crucial for me getting Packlane off the ground, and I’m really grateful for their support and encouragement. They let me live in their house rent-free while I took the plunge into entrepreneurship and quit my job. They even helped me hands-on with foundational tasks bookkeeping and drafting up legal contracts.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Succeeding in business is extremely competitive — there are millions of companies with really smart people working to capture opportunities aggressively, so you really have to offer customers something extraordinary to compete — especially on the internet where there are no geographic boundaries. In some cases, you just need a really good sales pitch or marketing or can be in the right place at the right time, but that’s rare. Usually you need a superior experience and customer service to back it up and sustain your advantage.

We have all had times either in a store or online when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I’ve noticed that the moat around the business, and the level of competition, determine the level of customer orientation when it comes to things like customer service. For example, Apple and Google make some of the most impressive and beloved products in the world and typically have a great customer experience, but are notorious for having poor customer service. They’ve created products that have almost no equivalent alternatives or competitors in the market, so they don’t have much incentive to be generous when it comes to accommodating customers. A lot of companies view customer service as a cost center, so they try to minimize it as much as possible. Very few companies put it on a pedestal and use it as a growth driver like Chewy, Zappos, Uber, etc. but it also speaks to how competitive those markets are.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Yes, the level of competition is probably one of the single most important factors that drive how companies prioritize their customer experience. There are other pressures as well like brand/reputation and retention economics, but retention economics can rely on other factors like how much of a hassle it is to switch to a different product (e.g. Shopify, Stripe, etc.).

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I had a couple of customers in the very early days of the company when I was handling all of the customer service myself that I connected with over our live chat or help desk tools and just bent over backward to make sure they were getting responses and had a great experience, and as a result, they started evangelizing the company on Facebook groups for subscription box owners. When this started happening, Packlane started building this word-of-mouth momentum that was magical. It led to a lot of traffic which gave me conviction early on that if I could make customers happy, my business would grow.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

It really just led to this snowball effect of customers coming to Packlane for the positive stories they had heard about, and it kind of christened our company as one that excelled at customer service, which was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Use every interaction opportunity with customers to turn them into advocates.

Even when we get complaints from customers, we try to use this as a way to show our appreciation and dedication to serving them. Each interaction is an opportunity to impress and represent what the company stands for.

2. Err on the side of generosity.

When faced with a decision point that involves doing something costly for the sake of a customer, always err on the side of giving the customer what they want within reason. For example, if an order is running late in production we don’t hesitate to ship overnight to meet their deadline.

3. Build a customer service team that exceeds your wildest expectations.

Your customer service team is the central nervous system of your organization, and your customer service is as good as the worst team member in that group. Take extra care to hire the right people for this function and provide them with growth opportunities. Some of the most important and impactful team members at Packlane started within Customer Service and brought that customer-centric thinking to other parts of the organization which has been very positive. When you hire people that can perform customer service at a standard that exceeds even your own expectations, that’s when you know you have something special.

4. Great customer service is expensive.

Don’t expect to outsource great customer service or find a way to make it cheap. It’s an investment that pays off over the long term, but there isn’t a way that I’ve found to cut corners.

5. Learn from the best.

We live in a world where there is so much information, content, and documentation available about legendary customer service experiences and customer-centric organizations. Whether it’s Amazon, Chewy, Zappos, Chick-Fil-A, or Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table” — read widely and be a sponge for absorbing new inspiration.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

There are few things that are more effective than sharing a great customer service experience on social media.

My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I would advise retail and eCommerce companies to choose a niche that isn’t going to be commoditized — choose something where you can command pricing power and establish a brand that requires a high level of trust.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Movement is pretty interesting. I think if we want to bring the most good to the most people, we need to think beyond the next couple of generations and think about the long-term preservation of the planet.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Miriam Brafman LinkedIn

Packlane Website

Packlane Instagram

Packlane Facebook

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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