Leader-Telegram - Sunday, August 3rd, 2008


Big Dot focuses on making customers happy

By Pamela Powers Menomonie News Bureau MENOMONIE - When Big Dot of Happiness co-owner Sherri Yukel began creating baby shower gifts, the operation was anything but a big dot.

In fact, she started out as a blip in 1999, scrambling to find space in her Menomonie home to create custom character bath towels.

The company continued to grow as she helped other at-home moms sell their custom-made items on the Internet.

From that start-up in their home, Sherri and her husband, Scott, have created a nearly $7 million per year Menomonie-based Internet sales company, Big Dot of Happiness, specializing in supplying all that is needed for birthday parties and baby, bridal and wedding showers. Many of the items are unique, manufactured for Big Dot alone and unavailable in retail shops.

"We provide everything you need for the event," said the mother of four.

Every customer who orders at least $100 in items is sent a handwritten note thanking them for ordering from the company. The envelope is handwritten as well.

"What we are really selling is customer service," Scott said.

Many companies struggle with customer service. At Big Dot that's not the case.

"The whole company knows who the boss is, and they will tell you: 'It is the customer,' " Sherri said.

Team members answering the phones can answer questions as well as give monetary credits or, if needed, ship a package overnight to make sure it arrives on time for a special occasion, she said.

Sherri proudly said she has spent $68 shipping a $2 pack of pencils to ensure a customer's party was complete.

"Most customers expect if a company messes up they will get credit," she noted.

Big Dot customers get credit, their item shipped, a gift and a handwritten apology from the supervisor for the error.

"That is our passion," Sherri said.

Scott echoed that sentiment.

"The customer is always the boss," he said. "The customer determines if we will be here tomorrow."

In late May, the company moved into a new, 20,000-square-foot building in the Stout Technology Park after a few years in a metal building on Menomonie's north side.

The company has grown to about 45 employees. Scott left an engineering job about three years ago and is now Big Dot's chief executive.

For the groundbreaking of the new building, each employee was given a shirt with a number on the back indicating which hire they were. Sherri Yukel is No. 1; Scott is No. 6.

The new building was designed to keep the atmosphere of a party and planning life's special occasions.

Multicolored lights and brightly colored rooms were designed in the building, which was built so it could be doubled in size, Scott said.

Each room has a unique, humorous name, which is part of the branding of the company as being different and unique from other manufacturers.

There is the Expert, Experts, also known as customer service; the Superheroes, or printing room; the Dotifiers, or assembly and warehouse; product development is known as the Designer of Dots; and the Fanatics are in marketing. Even the lunchroom has a special name, the Spunkitudinality Lounge.

The Dotifiers room is painted in four bright colors the company uses: blue, teal blue, yellow and light orange.

David Brier of DBD International in Menomonie helped brand the company and develop its marketing tools.

"In everything we do, we are trying to be unique," Sherri said.

All phones are answered within 20 seconds. If customers must be on hold, they aren't subject to music but to an upbeat conversation between Sherri Yukel and Brier about the company.

A poem is sent with the e-mail confirming an order, another when an order is being processed and yet another when the shipping confirmation is sent.

Even opening a package from Big Dot of Happiness is meant to be an event.

Boxes have six colors on them, and customers opening the box are greeted with a message on each folded flap to build excitement about the products inside.

"It's a great presentation piece," Sherri said. "It is all about first impression."

Items are wrapped in a cellophane paper with the Big Dot of Happiness on it and tied to look like a present.

Some of the items the company offers are Big Headed dolls, which are soft squeezable babies with large heads, in both Caucasian and African American; tableware including for twins; and cakes constructed from rolled-up diapers.

Invitations, candy bar wrappers and party favors such as guest soaps or candle tins can be personalized for special occasions. About 50,000 to 60,000 items are personalized each month.

The company offers games such as the pacifier game wrapped to look like a pacifier or a scratch-and-sniff game to find the dirty diaper.

"It is all about the niche, niche, niche," Sherry said.

Ninety-nine percent of the customers are women, and catering to individual needs is a must, she said.

"Women want to outdo their friends who just had a party down the block," Sherry said. "They want something a lot different than they can get in a local party shop."

Over the next five years, Scott Yukel projects the company will grow three-fold to $20 million a year in business.

Eighty percent of the market now is baby shower gifts and party items. The goal is to expand the wedding shower and birthday party market.

"You're born, you grow, you shop," Scott Yukel said. "It is a life cycle. People have weddings, babies and birthdays."

The company's Web sites receive between 17,000 to 24,0000 hits per day, and the company averages between 300 to 350 orders per day.

Brenda Knutson, the dotifier of dots (also known as the customer service manager), has been with Big Dot of Happiness about a year.

"It's phenomenal to work here," she said. "I came here from being a bank manager, and I thought I knew what customer service was. I didn't know what great customer service is. What we provide is service, and product just happens to come with it.

The fact few if any customers will ever see the Big Dot of Happiness's headquarters shows how much the Yukels believe in the team of employees by ensuring it is a bright, delightful building to work in, Knutson said.

"We know we are affecting people's lives; they are having a baby or getting married," Knutson said. "If we can make it easier and fun, that is what we are here to do."

Story by: Pamela Powers