“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.” This is one of my favorite proverbs! As the pipe, valves and fittings industry adapts to a protracted COVID-19 universe, anxiety, fear of the unknown and mixed governmental messages are driving PVF wholesalers, manufacturers and their reps to ponder exactly how they should respond.
How do they change or redesign their new business development model going forward? What does the future look like? What has changed and what needs to change? How do you keep your business and customers while adding new ones? How do you assure your people, alleviate their concerns and provide leadership, confidence and direction?
In July and August, I spoke with several distributor and manufacturer friends in the industry and asked them to share what they are contemplating and what they are doing. In many cases, I heard about high-level company strategy meetings discussing this urgent topic.
My first piece of advice is not to sit around a conference table asking and answering your own questions. Remember that customers are confused, too, and seeking answers. Engage them and get them involved in your discourse and process. They will welcome your initiative and respect you more for including them. What a unique opportunity! Only the customer can tell you what specific changes and circumstances are occurring and affecting their current and future needs for products, services and support.
More importantly, it will reduce their apprehension and boost their confidence in you and gain respect for your initiative. Utilize the pandemic as a legitimate excuse to probe and gather pertinent information. Ask what-if questions and provide thoughtful answers. Scour customers’ company websites, mission and trend statements — especially new guidelines regarding COVID-19 procedures and protocol. Do not assume or guess.
Share your account history and experience with customers. Remember: Your invoices don’t tell the story about heroic recoveries, emergency responses or contingency plans for the unexpected. Inform them of what you are doing differently to be better and to assure them of your sensitivity to this new environment.
Consider a customer advisory group so they can benefit from other companies’ brainstorming and training. Tell them what you are doing differently as a result of COVID-19. Ask the group what you should be doing. You may be designated an essential business by your state’s governor, but does the customer think you are? If you keep coming up with new questions, it is a good thing — you are still seeking answers and perspective. The more, the better for all concerned. Drill down for tangible ideas.
Once customers provide clarity and a path forward, then you can share this information with your managers, sales and customer service teams. Get them involved in creating the very best solutions based on customer input and conclusions. Get your marketing people energized to get the word out on your website, literature, blogs, newsletters and training. This will reinforce the idea that you are not just reacting to the pandemic, but leading the way in the industry.
I talk with customers all the time — purchasing, maintenance, engineering, finance, contractors, etc. Even within the same company, when they think of your company, it’s interesting who they say are the most important people to them. Whoever they are, during these stressful times, they are even more critical now. Empower them and listen to their feedback to improve and adjust accordingly.
Set up aggressive training opportunities socially distanced, on-site and via Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings. These are person-to-person sales development opportunities. Use technology to educate and, where possible, to automate transactional business. For example, vendor-managed inventory can automate repetitive ordering.
Moving the Cheese
In 1998, Dr. Spencer Johnson wrote a great book titled, “Who Moved My Cheese?” It details an allegorical tale about mice looking for cheese in a maze, an example for business people to learn how to adapt and survive changes in the economic landscape. Your managers and business development teams should read it and discuss the lessons.
One of the compelling core lessons is: “Those that don’t change go extinct. Businesses die every day, and they are usually the ones that didn’t move and chase after the new cheese, whether out of fear or because they just weren’t quick enough.” This message is still very relevant today.
Truck drivers making deliveries to your customer can play a more prominent role. Get them involved and trained to gather intelligence and bring back information that will help you be a better supplier. How has the receiving protocol changed? Maybe salespeople who can’t get the immediate access as they used to can ride into a facility with drivers making deliveries.
Customers still need an uninterrupted, reliable supply chain. Do they know how to reach the right people when they need you? Customer service needs to have a face, names and urgency. Get proactive with outgoing calls to crucial customer contacts. Don’t assume they already know. Emphasize your availability 24-7, as well as your flexibility to adhere to any new procedures they may have.
Safety is always a priority. Demonstrate commitment to be the safest, as well as the best supplier.
Another interesting result of the protracted quarantine is that in talking with customers, a common theme is how disconnected they feel and how much they appreciate the personal touch. They may not see their customer service and sales contacts as often, but they appreciate the calls they get inquiring about them personally. It reinforces the notion you’re your company is there for them around the clock.
And your customers still need to know what’s new and why it’s relevant; they need to be kept current and appreciate when you share how similar customers are being affected. We supply more than PVF. We can be their primary source of cogent information — and we should be.
This isn’t the first crisis of the 21st century; remember 9-11 and the Great Recession. It will not be the last crisis we encounter. The cheese will move again and unexpectedly. Communication matters the most. Enhance your status and reputation. Anticipate, prepare, plan, communicate and respond! Everything in between should be a piece of cake for high-performance companies.
Extraordinary and intimate customer focus and involvement will differentiate and ensure that the customer will want to help you endure and persevere. You will be a better company for them and your own organization.
Create and be the new normal — don’t wait for it!
Share findings with manufacturers and reps so we look as if we are unified in resolve and singing off the same customer solutions-focused song sheet. This environment is still very fluid. Be alert and react smartly, quickly and with optimism!
Contractor, distributor, manufacturer — we are the supply chain. It will look a lot different in 2021. This year, 2020, has stressed-out our customers. They can find doom and gloom by just turning on their TV. Be their source of calm, clarity, enthusiasm and accurate information.