Getting it Right: Meeting Customer Expectations
By Ang Schramm, Columbia Forest Products

I can't begin to tell you how many times over the last 40 years I have had someone ask me a seemingly innocent question like, for example, "is there any requirement that sequence matched and numbered panels be balance matched all from the same log?" My typical first reaction to questions like this is, "uh-oh."

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this question was probably triggered by a customer, fabricator, end user, what-ever, whose expectations have already not been met. A possible scenario that would precede this little chat might follow this sequence (sorry):

Regular Buyer: "May I have a quote for 24 sheets of ΒΌ" A-4 PS Red Oak on VC, sequence matched?"

Eager to Please Sales Rep: "Of course! Your price is $_____." (a very attractive number)

RB: "Your price sure is high. My PO number is _____." (I know...I took a short-cut to get to this point.)

Fast forward several weeks/months to the opening question:

End User to RB: "Why do these panels look different? I ordered them to all look the same."

RB to ETPSR: "Why do these panels look different? I ordered them to all look the same."

End result: Not good.

What Happened?

With a little digging, we will probably discover this was an order for a law library for the most prestigious firm in the city with the blueprints calling for balance matched panels, matched in four sets of five, all from one log to be fabricated into judge's panels. Somewhere in the process the quantity probably got rounded up to a "press load" increment of 24. The illustrations on the prints actually depict well-defined cathedrals within the individual components, and there may even be a specification for component width. Did we mention that the color expectation for the red oak is "light straw?" Probably not.

Now it's a mess. All the original material must be replaced. Everyone is blaming everyone else, and the client just wants their expectations met. It will be a tough clean-up job and in the end no one wins.The best result in this case will be that the specifier is appeased at a minimum loss to all parties to the point they may consider one day specifying your product again, and that is a sad state of affairs.

What can be done to prevent this?

In the movie The Karate Kid II, Daniel-san LaRusso asks Mr. Miyagi how to avoid getting hit by his opponent. Mr. Miyagi looks at him nonchalantly, shrugs and replies, "no be there."As the story grows, he expertly coaches Daniel-san on avoidance techniques that in the end make him victorious.

Although Mr. Miyagi is a fictional character with seemingly supernatural abilities, we can still learn from his lesson and "no be there" in the first place. For us to avoid taking this punch, like Daniel, we need to rely on our own instincts, training, and knowledge.We need to learn to look for not only what is said, but also what is not.Many times everyone in the supply chain is so busy that it is easy to miss these subtleties I call "red flags" that telegraph to us that a potent punch is headed in our direction. Sometimes red flags are insidious.

Sometimes they are innocent.But, if you listen carefully and pay close attention you can pick them out.A red flag may be hidden in any of the following:

--Unusual quantity, grade, cut, or species for this customer

--Less than standard packaging, even if "press load" quantities

--Higher grade face with a very low grade back

--Plain sliced cut for a species more often purchased as rotary

--Unusual description, color, grain appearance

--Sequence matched (and numbered)

--It comes from an unfamiliar buyer

--Spec calls for one species in different thicknesses or cores

--Anything that just doesn't seem right!

Any of these red flags should cause us to stop, take a deep breath, and ask questions. At the very least you should ask, "how is it going to be used?" If the answer is, "I don't know," don't be afraid to say, "please find out!"Once we know how the product is going to be used we can ask a series of questions:

Will all panels be used on the same job?

Is this a one time or repeating job?

Do the panels need to all come from the same log?

Can we match between sequence for color and grain for larger quantities?

Is there a particular look the specifier has in mind?

Should this be a custom grade?

Are samples required?

What type of match within a panel (running, balance, center) is expected?

Which core is best for this application?

Can we use a higher grade back to improve the overall quality?

Of course, neither of these lists should be considered complete, but they should help establish a baseline for pursuing the real expectations so that we can ensure those expectations are met.

Having participated in the above dialogue many, many times in the past, I will tell you that I frequently hear the objection that our customers don't have time to answer all these questions, and that if we try to dig too deeply they may become impatient or angry. No sympathy question then becomes: would you rather irritate your customer by asking too many questions on the front end in order to meet expectations, or would you prefer to wait until you have failed to meet those expectations and see how well that works out?



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