“Steve, we suck less than our competitors.”

When asked why contractors buy from their supplier, this is the answer I most often get, from the supplier! At first, I thought it was funny. A bit sarcastic, but a humorous way to say that there are no “great” suppliers out there – only ones that are less bad than the others. I would brush it off and try to get their minds changed. Right? How can you work for a company who just sucks less as opposed to being better, faster, stronger, etc? But the truth was lurking in the training rooms back then.

It’s hard to mine, manufacture, mix, produce, and deliver materials in the construction industry. If we just stop there and think about it for a moment, this is a tough thing to do. In ready-mixed concrete for example, you’ve got no more than 90 minutes to deliver and unload a 10-cubic-yard batch at a job site. Sounds easy in concept, but now add to it a set of variables like the plant or vehicle could break down, the mixture itself could be ordered incorrectly or improperly measured, the driver could get stuck in traffic or get lost, the job site could have access issues, the pump could break or the finishers might not be ready for the load. Or they could even hold the truck up after it unloads which prevents it from getting back to the plant fast enough to be sent back out, now late, for its next order.

For some reason though, in my coaching, I found that my students would constantly, daily, hourly, hear complaints from their customers and then explain to me how frustrating it was to them that they never can get it “right” in operations. Ironically, I would even hear them say, “Steve, I know you’ll probably take operations side of view on this, but come on, why is it so hard to do what we said we were going to do? It’s like operations doesn’t even care!”

I had to reassure them that operations, everyone in the company for that matter, was working hard every day to make customers happy. No one woke up that morning and thought, “Hmmm. Who am I gonna purposely screw over today?” I just had to keep reminding them that it’s just a hard business they are in. Whether it’s lead times for manufacturing, delivery times, or turn-around times for quotes and submittals, the customer can always find something to complain about. But are the customers being “reasonable”???

What are the expectations? Why are they so high and basically unattainable? Why does an account manager get that feeling in the pit of their stomach when they see the phone call from their customer at 7am? It isn’t, “How can I help you?” its “What did we do (or not do) now????”

One of the big companies I worked with did a satisfaction survey of their customers. It was like the “Net Promoter Score” concept that recently has taken hold of the business world. Basically, when the results came in, what they heard was that customers were unhappy with service. The executives, of course, decided that that needed to change! The problem is that there is no incentive for the customers to tell them that they are doing a good job, so why say it??? 

In other words, if I am negotiating with you all the time for VIP service and treatment with the lowest price possible, why would I ever tell you that you are doing a good job? If I did, you might think that the level of service you are providing is good enough (and stop being available to me 24/7) and/or you might feel like you can charge more (or NOT give me the discount next time to make up for last time). You see, the game is really about ongoing negotiations. If you came into my store and bought a product, once, then sure, leave me a positive review. But if you are going to buy from me, or one of my few competitors, on a regular basis (and want to leverage me to give you more for less money) then keep up the shtick! It’s in your best interest to do so.

What I realized over all the time working with these brave souls who deal with difficult customers day in and day out, is that they are constantly being beaten up. To the point of submission. “Ugh Steve. I’m just tired of it. How can I do my job and get more business when we blow people up every day?!?!?”

Unfortunately, the solution sounds simple, but it is one of the hardest things in the world to do. You have to change your mind. It’s not about convincing the customer, yet. It’s about changing your own mind about what’s happening. You’ve been led to believe, therefore chose to believe, that the customer’s expectation is realistic. But it’s not. And yes, maybe you too would love it if everything worked out perfectly all the time (or even some of the time). But it’s not the case. You need to accept that fact. It’s a fact.

I used to travel a lot for work and there was one Southwest Airlines route I took quite often. It was the last flight out of Ontario, CA to Las Vegas, NV. I think it was scheduled to leave ONT at around 9:30pm and it was ALWAYS late. After a few trips, I would expect it to be late. Prepare for it to be late. Makes sense, right? I still had to get to the airport on time, in case it was randomly on time. But inevitably, it usually was late. I would call my spouse and let her know when I was expecting to get home and she too accepted it.

But something would happen every time I was waiting for that flight. There were a few of us business travelers just sitting down waiting patiently for the flight. But there were always a few extremely upset passengers who couldn’t understand that the airplane, their airplane, wasn’t ready for them. “I have to get to Vegas!” they would yell at the gate agent. “This is unacceptable!” “I am a regular traveler on this airline, after this, you will definitely not get my money every again!” These passengers were so angry and taking it all out on the gate agent.

The magic was watching how the gate agent handled it. They were cool, calm, and collected. They were so patient listening to the passengers. However, they knew that they could do nothing about it. The airplane wasn’t even here yet and they definitely couldn’t change that fact, even if they wanted to. They would respond to the customer gently, “I’m sorry that the plane is delayed. Once it gets here we will make sure we turn it around quickly and get you on your way as fast as we can. Thanks for your patience. We appreciate your business and I understand if you would want to fly a different airline, but we are all experiencing the same issues today.”

I use this story often when trying to help my account managers see that there is a different approach that is possible with their irate customers. It’s out of their control, but they don’t have to be a victim to it. One can be reassuring and calm without lying or pretending it’s better than it is. “Your order is running behind schedule. We had difficulty this morning getting trucks back from job sites and it has impacted all of our afternoon deliveries.”

After some additional coaching, I can even get the salesperson to realize that it might even be an operations problem NOT a sales problem. “When you called dispatch, what did they say?” “I’m sure that dispatch has that information for you.” “Why don’t I look into what happened today and see if there is a pattern or a recurring problem that we should discuss at our next meeting. If we can make adjustments, let’s do so.”

The solution is simple once you decide that it’s not personal, it’s not your fault, and it’s probably not going to get that much better (although it may over time). Once you accept the reality of your operations department, then you can “sell” the reality to the customer. You can start setting reasonable expectations with your customers and you might even get fewer phone calls from upset contractors.

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