MHEDA members are ingrained to provide top-of-the-line customer service for their customers. However, no relationship is perfect. According to Gregg Lederman, CEO of Brand Integrity and 2011 MHEDA Convention keynote speaker, 81 percent of senior leaders believe that their organization delivers superior customer service. Only eight percent of their customers agree. Why does this disconnect exist? What can be done to combat it in the material handling industry?
One of the most pressing customer issues, especially in the current economic climate, is communication. For a relationship to be successful, communication must be an open two-way street. Often times, issues pop up because a communication breakdown occurred somewhere along the line. “If it is apparent that a customer has not listened, or worse, used ‘selective’ hearing, I often find that it is a subordinate who may not have been in the loop on the original proposal,” says Glenn Bork, project manager at DAK Equipment & Engineering (Elmhurst, IL). “Questions arise from their not being familiar with product details, installation or performance. I always try to take the extra time to explain, detail and educate on the original value of the proposition to prevent communication issues later with decision-makers.”
During The Customer Panel at MHEDA’s 56th Annual Convention, three end-users discussed hot-button issues in material handling partnerships from a customer perspective. “What we have seen is that people are sometimes afraid to bring up issues or problems,” says Matt Pitts, vice president of building services at The Home Depot (Atlanta, GA). “I would much rather hear it straight so that we can face these issues head-on. Tell us your plan up front and keep that communication channel open.”
Another issue that arose during The Customer Panel was how distributors contact their end-user partners. John Costa, maintenance projects manager at AutoZone (Memphis, TN), says, “It is vital that distributors learn about our company and really understand what we are trying to do before soliciting business from us. Don’t come to us without knowing who we are and what we do. Make sure that every meeting has a purpose.” Rick Ellingson, vice president of Bargreen Ellingson (Tacoma, WA), says that partners should stay in constant contact. “Our partners should stay in touch all of the time, even when there is no product to be sold. That is how you build a strong relationship.”
One distributor described a potential disconnect. “If you are staying awake at night because of an unhappy customer, it is often due to the fact that you did not present a clear explanation of the products and services being provided,” says Bruce Wilson of Combination Design on the MHEDA LinkedIn group. “Sometimes we assume that the customer thought something was not included when, in reality, the customer believed that it was. You need to take the time to present a complete scope of supply and not make any assumptions.”
Another major area of concern is a customer’s financial capability. “When a major account experiences financial difficulties, our risk increases,” says Jerry Weidmann, president of Wisconsin Lift Truck (Brookfield, WI). Warren Cornil, CEO of Sunbelt Industrial Trucks (Dallas, TX), agrees. “The only thing worse than not having any business is having business and not getting paid for it. Long ago, I made a deal with my banker. He doesn’t sell forklifts and I don’t lend money.”
Richard Donnelly, executive vice president of Gregory Poole Equipment Company (Raleigh, NC), says that it is important to bear in mind that end-users were also impacted by the recent recession. Some are choosing to buy based strictly on the bottom line. AutoZone’s Costa says, “The most important aspect of our buying relationship is the cost-saving initiatives that the distributor can offer. We value service, but we are extremely analytical about how every sale will impact our bottom line.” In an industry where exceptional service can set one distributor apart from another, what does this bottom-line philosophy mean for sales?
Dealing With Issues
Customer issues are inevitable. Once they arise, distributors often find themselves at a crossroads. If the issues are irreconcilable, sometimes distributors are forced to cease doing business with a customer. Other times, these issues can serve as teachable moments that the distributor can benefit from down the line. As Tony Moore from Pieces & Parts says in a MHEDA LinkedIn discussion, “I believe sometimes we think that the customer doesn’t listen to what we say. We use the knowledge we have from years in the business, but sometimes the customer still does something different. When we lose a bid or the customer does something else, I always ask myself what more could I have done to prevent this from happening?”