It becomes more critical every day that wood products companies be in tune with their competitive surroundings — ready to respond quickly with positive change in order to adjust to rapidly shifting market dynamics. But while we may think we have all the answers, the major factors that drive this unpredictable environment are best understood by our customers. For this reason, it is customer input that should provide us with the valuable information from which to form many of our strategic management decisions — our marketing and manufacturing strategies.

When these external forces demand change, one must react decisively and in a timely manner. So who should you turn to in order to formulate and implement the best plan for re-engineering your company in the shortest time? I like to think that every reader knows the importance of utilizing your employees’ ideas at a time like this. Those within your company that are doing the work are more in touch with what’s happening within and are familiar with the issues that could affect your ability to produce a quality product, on time, and at the proper cost.

Our customers are the best source for input to help us compete in the marketplace, and our employees are the best resources to facilitate the positive changes necessary. The lesson that we must learn is to listen to our customers’ concerns and suggestions, and then turn to our employees and empower them to help solve the issues.
But is it really as simple as that?

Listening Without Hearing
We were all taught at a very young age that when someone is speaking we should listen to them. But listening is much more than giving attention, it is actually an obligation to analyze what is being said in order to understand the deeper meaning of the words spoken.

I submit that many of us are guilty of listening without really hearing, and in the process are missing out on much of the input we desperately need to successfully run our businesses. The risk is that you will miss a deeper meaning of what is being said if you don’t concentrate on every word.

If you look at the sketch on page 13 that my friend Hal Siler has drawn, you will see a beat up guy straining to hear what is being said. To be successful you must have a mindset and the dedication to understand the underlying meaning of statements, suggestions, or criticisms. Sometimes this is a painful process that produces bumps and bruises.

Taking Your Lumps
Sometimes we don’t want to hear what someone is saying because we are afraid of the underlying meaning or outright implications that may point to our inadequacies or to ineffective company policies and operating procedures.

No matter how painful it may become, you and your management team must be willing to open up to ideas and criticisms by listening with such intensity that you hear what is really being said. Customers or employees may be mistaken in their perception of the issue, but even if they are, perceptions are reality to the beholder until proven otherwise. It is up to each of us to patiently analyze what is being said and then to reflect on the underlying issue discovered during the process. If it’s important enough to be brought to your attention, it’s important enough for you to take it seriously.

The Follow-Up
Assume that your customer service or sales representative hears from a disgruntled client and passes the information to you — the person in charge of sales. What are you going to do? Hopefully you will take this input and contact the customer yourself. The discussion may have to do with late or long delivery times — a critical issue today. More often than not, a customer who brings up this matter is really saying: “Tom, if you guys don’t do something about shorter leads times that I can depend on, I am going to have to find another supplier.”

In fact, that customer has probably been shopping and found someone who is promising shorter and more reliable lead times. If it takes personal involvement to really understand the issue, you should consider meeting face-to-face to ensure the communication is productive and you have a complete understanding of the issue. This is also a good opportunity to reassure the customer that you care about his concerns.

Likewise, no matter the size of your organization, if you are involved in manufacturing and you learn of a disgruntled employee, you should meet face-to-face as soon as possible to really understand the issue. It may be a personal matter, a work-related issue, or a suggestion on how to improve production flow. For you to invest the time to listen and really hear what he is saying can produce invaluable returns in your investment of time and intellect, and more often than not, result in information that can take your company on a road to a leaner one.

Quite often I have seen responsible men and women ignore off-the-wall comments that customers or employees make when there obviously was a reason for the statement. Common sense tells us that we must communicate well in this industry if we are going to survive. Communication is a two-way street that demands understanding and discernment on our part so we can really hear what is on a person’s mind. Regardless of the issue, regardless of the lumps we may have to endure, there is gold buried deep within their words.

The price of hearing is making yourself and your company vulnerable to criticisms and sharp attacks. Just consider that the price paid is an investment that will generate huge returns in the future if you respond with positive follow-up. Being in the hearing mode empowers you to become proactive in addressing issues before they become a crisis.
Personal Note: I have been writing this column for the past 11 years with the goal of stimulating you to create a culture of change (continuous improvement) in your company. In this last installment of Management Matters, I implore you to remember that the high price of hearing is a bargain, especially when you consider the cost of not listening at all!

I have enjoyed sharing my ideas and thank you for the positive feedback you have provided over the years. I wish you success as you endeavor to continually re-engineer your company and move forward in the years to come. Feel free to contact me at any time.

Tom Dossenbach is the president of Dossenbach Associates Inc., a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail tfd@dossenbach.com

 
You must be willing to listen to customers and employees, and hear what is being said —
taking your lumps if you must, and then reacting with positive change.

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