CWB February 2002

People Need to Know

Problems occur. But a bigger problem is not telling customers, vendors or employees about the ones that directly affect them.

By Anthony Noel

I recently overheard a conversation between the wholesale customer of a limited-production shop and the shop's owner. But there was a twist. Instead of listening to this exchange from the shop owner's side of the phone, I was hearing what his customer had to say. And let me tell you...he was livid.

"But you promised me the piece would be here in time for Thanksgiving! The customer was counting on it - counting on me!

"Now I look incompetent, but it's worse than that. We're trying to get this part of our business off the ground and this is a very particular customer who will tell everybody she knows that we screwed up."

Though I could hear only one side of the conversation, the wholesale customer's tone made it obvious that, whatever the shop owner was saying, he was only digging himself a deeper hole.

"What do you mean it's not that big a deal?" the customer said, disbelief dripping from every syllable.

"All you had to do was pick up the phone and let me know. Instead, your truck pulls in on the day before Thanksgiving without the piece on it. Now I have to tell my customer at the eleventh hour that she won't have it, after we told her she would.

"Look, that's not my problem, and it's not the point! I don't care why you couldn't get it done on time. What matters is that you didn't tell me about it, even though you knew.

"Why? Because it's a whole lot easier for my customer to hear about it three or four days before the holiday than it is the night before, when she's expecting to see my delivery truck pull in.

"No, I'm not making a bigger deal of this than it is. How long have you been in business?"

There was a pause as the shop owner, miles away, answered.

"Well, I've been in business six times as long, for thirty years. Do you think I'd have lasted that long if I'd made promises and not at least given my customers some advance notice when I found out I would be unable to keep them?"

A longer pause.

"My fault? How?"

He listened to the man on the other end, the veins in his forehead becoming more prominent every second.

"Things happen? I shouldn't have promised my customer they'd have it? But you promised me it wouldn't just be here by Thanksgiving, but probably a week before!"

More listening, heavy sighs and rolling eyes.

"No, you're still missing the point. It's not about you not getting it to me on time. It's about you NOT TELLING ME you wouldn't."

Any patience the customer might have had when the conversation began was long gone.

"Look, we can argue all day. The bottom line is I'm your customer, and you screwed up. If you want to keep me as a customer, you'd best understand that you need to keep me informed. If you can't get that, we can't do business."

Sadly, some custom manufacturers never get it.

That wholesale customer understood the importance of communication or, more specifically, of accurate information. He understood the difference between accurate information and bogus information, and how to use accurate information to preserve and enhance customer relationships.

Though I couldn't hear what the shop owner was actually saying, it was clear that he did not understand any of this.

Bottom Line: Accurate Information Benefits Everyone

If you've read anything about management in recent years, you've probably seen the phrase "internal and external customers." This is just an intellectualized way of saying "the people you work with," be they employees or suppliers or (actual, stuff-buying) customers. And the people you work with, all of them, need accurate information if they, and you, are to succeed.

Your suppliers need to know exactly what you need, when you need it, and what you're willing to pay for it.

Your customers need to know what you can supply, when they can have it, and how much it's going to cost them.

And your employees need to know what you want, when you have to have it, and how much you're willing to pay them for producing it.

Beyond that, we can look at more specific relationships. Your insurance company needs to know exactly what you do and the value of your premises and those you work in, or your policy will not cover you adequately if there's a loss.

The company that services your CNC equipment needs to know how much you use it in a given period of time or it'll be late servicing it, which will only lead to more expensive maintenance issues down the road.

We can get as specific as we want about any relationship. The one unchanging, intractable truth is that the better the information, the better (meaning, the more beneficial) the relationship will be for everyone it affects.

Just 'Bite the Bullet'

Hesitancy to give people "bad" news is natural. But it's a part of life, and a big part of doing business. The better your production planning is (and what is production planning based upon? Right! Information!), the less often you'll find yourself in the predicament that the shop owner in our example did. But the point (hopefully you can "get it," where he could not) is how you deal with it.

The absolute first thing to do is let your customer (internal, external, nocturnal, whatever) know. No hemming and hawing, no sugar-coating, no "maybe there's still a chance." Just pick up the phone, call him, tell it like it is, and then keep your mouth shut and your ears open.

Your customers couldn't care less about (and will respect you less if you try to employ) lame excuses. And pretty much any excuse you give them will, in their eyes, be lame. So don't waste your breath. The bottom line is that they will not be getting what they want when they thought they would, and that is the crucial information. Everything else is just window dressing.

Yes, they will probably be upset. But the degree to which they are upset will be directly proportional to a few things: (1) how far in advance you are giving them the bad news (sooner equals less upset), (2) when (realistically) you can make it right, and (3) how utterly apologetic you are as you convey the information. (Groveling is completely appropriate. The memory of how uncomfortable it made you will go a long way in driving you to put practices in place which address whatever caused the problem, so it doesn't happen again.)

After, and only after, you've talked to your customer can you begin to look at what put you in a position that you needed to do so. And, once again, the key is getting accurate information and applying it to the solution.

We'll look more at how to gather, use and convey information next month.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.