On Second Thought
with Alan Spear
Tom Nightingale wrote a thought-provoking commentary, “Elephant in the room,” in April’s American Shipper
that suggested this follow-up article.
In his remarks, Nightingale talks about the critical relationship between sales and operations in “creating” and “keeping” customers; in the ongoing matriculation of that relationship and the need to respond flexibly to systemic changes to keep those relationships viable and up to date.
I’ve had the kinds of jobs over the years that have frequently put me in direct contact with customers. I’ve been through their factories, observed their logistics, reviewed their practices and protocols, analyzed their failures and successes, and developed a sense of how corporate priorities have developed. With that kind of hands-on experience, I’ve been able to relate to how it feels to work for that customer, how problems are identified, addressed and resolved, and how management responds to the need to change or enhance processes. All of that has fed back to my own employers and has helped them address what customers need more effectively.
Nightingale’s article did, however, remind me that it’s time to worry about losing vital direct face-to-face contact and understanding of our customers. You can see it everywhere: a face-to-face meeting is now held via webinar; analysis of a crisis event is handled electronically; reports are sometimes generated third-hand and more often based on formulaic responses rather than years of experience; and the mantra of “saving time, travel costs and reducing head count” is taking over to the detriment of truly understanding the customer.
It’s even true in the office environment. Highly paid executives are now typing their own memos and reports (does it make sense to pay someone $100 per hour to type?); team leads are worrying about file compliance; and critical line personnel are concerned about upcoming audits. Procedure is becoming the god of practice, and the critical understanding that can only be gained by “touching” the customer may not fit into the matrix.
The skills we develop through face-to-face meetings are hard to teach, but irreplaceable. Making a suggestion on a conference call or webinar generates a verbal response, but what about all of the other responses people make when they like or dislike an idea. Can you tell over the computer whether someone answered directly, or looked away when they responded? Does their body position on the telephone give you any clues as to whether they are likely to accept an idea or just make noises about accepting it? Can you really tell who is in charge on the telephone? (The one who talks the most is not necessarily the one making the decisions.)
I recall a meeting some years ago at an automobile plant. I was called in as a marine surveyor to help them identify a problem with damage to automobile engines shipped from Japan. Engines were being shipped in plastic forms to which they were bolted, and then stacked three high in ocean containers. Some of the bolts were coming loose and the engines were tipping over and suffering external damage. At this facility, I was given some time to get down onto the shipping and receiving docks to actually look at the problem, talk to personnel, and consider the damage being done. As this was a “just-in-time” plant, damaged engines could mean that cars literally left the assembly line without engines which had to be installed later.
After three hours on the loading dock, I then went upstairs to the executive board room to meet with company management to discuss my findings.
When I entered the room, a railroad executive wearing a suit and tie was present. (His railroad was handling 10,000 containers per year for this customer, so it was a major account for them.) As people filed into the room, the general manager arrived, along with a senior Japanese manager and his translator.
The railroad executive started the meeting by saying they had looked at the damage, had decided that some problem was occurring on the rail, and they would take care of it. The general manager looked at me, all sweaty and greasy, and then looked at the railroad guy in his suit, and asked him if he had actually looked at the damage, to which he replied, “No, but we’ll find the answer.”
The general manager then asked me what I had found. I described my findings and indicated that the problem could not be related to unusual events in transit such as storms or rough handling, but, due to the pattern of damage, was most probably due to a packing failure at the plant in Japan. He spoke briefly to his translator who stated: “Thank you for your information; we will consider it.” He then stood up and left the room and the meeting was over.
Six weeks later I received a call from the general manager who stated the problem had been solved and there were no more loose engines.
I enjoy recalling this event. Helping this customer was very rewarding and, when that relationship ended positively some years later, the general manager called me and said, “You will never know how much that helped.” I credit this result to an understanding of the customer – how their operations worked, how their vendors functioned, what their products were and how they were handled, where the power set within the overall management, and having developed a hands-on relationship with them over the years that made understanding and addressing the problem much easier.
As we look at the personal distance being created by our modern society, I hope we can remember and value just how important it is to know our customers personally. It’s surely been the best part of my job over the years.
Spear, a long-time cargo security specialist in the insurance industry, now operates his own consultancy. He can be reached by email.