Interviews | January 07, 2020
Direct Answer Is a One-Stop Shop
In 1991, Karen Piontkowski walked away from a comfortable position at a large fulfillment, caging and lockbox firm to start her own venture. The new company, Direct Answer, started as a family operation in her living room, committed to offering personal care and attention to clients’ needs. Twenty-eight years later, Direct Answer is headquartered in Oxon Hill, Maryland, with a distribution center in Capon Bridge, West Virginia, and plenty of clients clamoring for its highly personalized services — including some clients that have been with the company since its inception.
Katie Rogers, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Direct Answer, grew up helping out with the company — she’s Piontkowski’s daughter. But rising through Direct Answer’s ranks wasn’t easy; after originally considering a different career path out of undergrad, Rogers got a business degree from the University of North Carolina, started at the bottom in 2005 and worked her way up like any other employee. It’s important for family members to earn their spots at family companies, Rogers says, but it’s also important to consider how a family unit can help propel a business forward. Having multiple generations represented in the family at Direct Answer has helped the company broaden its appeal to clients of all ages.
In Rogers’ estimation, the company’s strength is in the all-encompassing services it offers. “We’re eight companies within one,” Rogers says, referencing the eight services Direct Answer provides: fulfillment, handwork and kitting, lettershop and direct mail, lockbox and data entry, contact center services, warehousing and logistics, subscription management, and print and promotional materials.
While Direct Answer originally courted clients from associations, publishers, fundraisers and e-commerce merchants, its audience has now expanded to include a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. It doesn’t hurt that Direct Answer is a woman-owned business intentionally located in economically disadvantaged areas to bring job growth to those communities. As consumers become more socially conscious, companies and organizations are following suit, eager to use that awareness as a way to bring in business. Partnering with Direct Answer is a way for Fortune 500 companies to show that they have a “do-good” mentality. But for Direct Answer, it’s not a marketing gimmick.
“That wasn’t something that we did in order to set us apart, to say, ‘Look at us, this is what we’re doing,’” Rogers says. “It’s just been part of our structure since we started in 1991.”
Regardless of where the client comes from, Rogers says Direct Answer is able to accommodate any and all desires to put out polished, personalized products. Right now, the company is working with an Instagram influencer who is looking to create a journal and workbook product to sell to fans. Given that Instagram influencers’ businesses depend on creating a unique style and personality online, it is essential that any products for sale really embody that personal touch. As such, it is no surprise that the influencer working with Direct Answer is looking for “a certain look and a certain feel,” Rogers says.
So, Direct Answer set out to find the best way to achieve the client’s vision. The company leveraged its relationship with PSDA distributors to find the best and most trusted sources for printing and manufacturing. Using the influencer’s specified budget and timeline, Direct Answer found suppliers for the book, gold inserts and boxes. Meanwhile, Direct Answer helped the influencer create her own online store integrated directly with her Instagram account and website, and still takes care of the fulfillment for orders from that online store. Direct Answer provides a contact center and customer service center.
“She makes one phone call and says, ‘This is what I want to do, this is how I want to execute it,’ and we do the whole thing start to finish,” Rogers says.
Direct Answer’s membership in PSDA is vital for clients like the influencer, who require a number of products and services. At the end of the day, Direct Answer is responsible for the final product it gives a client, so forming partnerships with reputable suppliers is all-important. According to Rogers, PSDA’s online supplier directory is a “godsend” for finding suppliers.
“When we have to find a unique supplier for a unique product, we really have found no better place [than the directory],” Rogers says. “If we didn’t have PSDA, we would rely on Google searches. There’s a level of trust with people who are PSDA members. They get it; they’re in the industry; they’re used to our process. They take their work as seriously as we do.”
While Direct Answer has made a name for itself as a trusted company, that’s not to say the company hasn’t faced challenges. Rogers says the company has gone through ups and downs, just like any other company in the industry, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. As far as Rogers is concerned, having no difficulties at all means a company has stagnated, hovering in a bubble without any real growth opportunity. Direct Answer has weathered the good times and bad by investing in emerging technology.
For a company to evolve and improve, it has to take risks and jump on new trends. When Direct Answer is looking to study new trends, Rogers knows exactly where to go.
“We like to read through PS Magazine because it has insights, it has trends, it talks about what other supplies are doing that we can bring to our clients,” she says. “We need to know what’s going on outside of our world. PS Magazine helps us with that.”
According to Rogers, one of the toughest challenges for Direct Answer is staying on top of all the changing trends. As the industry evolves, a trend that might have been considered hot two years ago may already be outdated now. And while it is tempting to try to maintain a fast pace and work nonstop to stay ahead of the curve, Direct Answer has found a different solution to that particular problem: thinking days.
On a thinking day, members of a given department step away from their desks, phones and emails to, as you might guess, think. They might go into special, darkened rooms with bean bag chairs, or they might go outside to a natural setting. The main goal of a thinking day is to remove distractions and allow Direct Answer professionals time to brainstorm ways to respond to a challenge or try something new. Rogers says it was difficult to adjust at first, but eventually the thinking days became indispensable.
“It has really, really, really helped,” she says. “It’s propelled us forward. It allows us to come back with ideas and different things to do.”
Not every idea brainstormed after a thinking day is implemented, but all are written down. After a thinking day, Direct Answer employees are able to see what they came up with after a day simply spent thinking in peace rather than locked in a conference room in a frenzy, trying to come up with a growth strategy.
Ultimately, thinking days are indicative of Direct Answer’s entire philosophy. Direct Answer has never been afraid of taking a risk, and that approach paid off as the company grew out of Piontkowski’s living room into a bona fide operation committed both to its clients and supporting local communities. Through its hard work over the years, Direct Answer has grown into a one-stop shop for its clients, providing faster, easier and more efficient services.
“Our tagline is, ‘You wouldn’t have more than one cellphone for each app,’” Rogers says. “You have all of your apps on one phone. [Our approach] is very similar to that approach, and that is definitely what makes us unique.”
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