A Buyers Lament: Do You Have Too Many Customers?

2011 July 12
by mark

Recently I’ve attempted to buy some equipment, and I’m beginning to think that the companies I selected must have too many customers. Here’s the evidence:
– They hand out a poorly printed pamphlet of their products and prices with an apology that it’s a year out of date and the prices have changed (I bought from them because of a special deal- one that cost them a lot of money).
– They tell me how to contact them by e-mail for inquiries, but they don’t respond to e-mail.
– They don’t return my phone calls.
– They promise me a delivery date (in May, now it’s July), and nothing happens. They give lots of apologies and lots of promises and no follow through. No call-back, no e-mail response. Nada.
– They lose my paperwork, and then they make mistakes.
– They are late with delivery, and they go into “beg for forgiveness” mode rather than “ask for permission” mode. If I depend on your product and you don’t tell me you’re going to be late, I’m not going to forgive you. I might say it’s OK, then I’m going to buy from your competitor next time.
– When I’m on hold on their phone I hear a recorded message that makes a reference to this holiday season. But it’s July.

Running a business is complicated, but there are a few simple truths. One of them is that you can compete on only a very limited number of things:
– price
– quality of the product or service, the support, and the buying experience
– delivery

That’s it- there’s no other magic. The fortunate few who sell proprietary goods or services may have it a little easier- until someone figures out how to do it better. The rest of us either have to compete by trying to play the volume/price game (a very, very tough thing to do unless your Wal Mart or have high volume manufacturing in China), attempting to out-deliver the competition, or more typically, trying to make a living off of customer relationships where we claim to give a better buying experience and better service (our stated “value proposition”).

If you’re betting your company and your livelihood on giving customers a better buying experience and better service, do you actually have a plan? Are you really better, or do you just want to believe that you’re nicer and let it go at that? Do you execute on the basics? What’s your process for returning e-mails and phone calls? Who answers the phone on off hours? What are your delivery metrics? How do you move inquiries, orders, and jobs through your shop without dropping the ball? How do you ensure that you’re meeting your customers’ delivery expectations? How do you manage quality? Do you reward your employees for taking great care of your customers? Do they even know how to do that, and what your expectations are? Do you measure and minimize your stock-outs, or are you a “we can order it for you” company? Your competition may be surly, grumpy, and sometimes hard to work with, but if they have the part in stock, they most likely will get the business next time.

If you’re not paying close attention to this stuff, you’re fooling yourself. Many of your customers are going to help lighten your load. Next time they’re going to buy from someone else.

And, seriously, who is responsible for changing the message on the phone answering machine after New Years?

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