I had the pleasure of attending the Southern Wholesalers Association (SWA) meeting in Hammock Beach, Fla., this year. SWA is a regional organization affiliated with the American Supply Association and they are thriving. This is, in my humble opinion, largely due to two things. First, the commitment of its members to the group both to attend and to contribute time, energy and intellect to the leadership of the organization. And second, to a quality professional team that manages the details of the association and meetings for their members. When we see a successful group, we often take both for granted. This year, more than 900 people were in attendance for meetings, networking and some family-oriented fun. Thanks to Terry Shafer, Linda Wilbourn, the SWA team and the SWA leadership and members for your hospitality. If you operate in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, North or South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas or in the Caribbean Islands, take a look at what membership in SWA can do for your company.
A couple of miscellaneous thoughts have been spinning in my head this month, mostly because my gut tells me that we aren’t making progress at the grass roots where rubber meets the road and where there is some sort of proverbial stick with a pointy end. (I have never understood the pointy-stick thing. I guess we use it to poke customers, associates, bears, sleeping dogs or something like that.) Many of us are thinking about training and customer service, some are talking about them, but very few are doing much to get better at them. Following are some thoughts on actually making some things better.
Sheep dipping is good for sheep with fleas but not for training
Some industry associations like HARDI, ASA and other organizations have charters to create educational programs and training materials for use by their members. Over the years, I have reviewed a couple of these programs and found them to be good to excellent. While our industry needs to continue to develop and evolve these offerings, we need to make better use of what is already available. Some wholesalers send flocks of their people off to seminars or dedicate their time toward completing training modules. Some establish a corporate goal for “dipping” their team in training. So a big bunch of the “sheep” get the same treatment. HR checks off that training was delivered and everyone is happy. So far, so good, but I think we need to do more.
The question is: Does the training really improve a wholesaler’s performance? Does it translate into changes in how business is conducted? There may be a small “Hawthorne-type Effect” wherein the trainee feels more loved or respected by the company after training, which translates into temporarily improved performance. I am not against this technique but there are other less-costly ways to show the team that you love them. You could, for example, just give them a cash bonus for the amount you would spend on training. I can just about guarantee that you would be feeling a lot of love from those folks.
I recommend, however, that you work to get your training to produce tangible benefits to the company. Completing the program is just the beginning. The big problem is that behaviors do not change much when the trainees get back to their “real world.” Some training programs have very little management involvement and support. Supervisors are often not included in the training, so they may actually operate in direct opposition to the instruction offered in the training modules. So the troops may be getting trained in techniques that they will never be able to use. This presents a mixed message to the team. It might even be considered insubordinate to employ the techniques they taught in the training. In some instances, they may be jeopardizing their job when their supervisor is on an entirely different page.
I think supervisors, managers and execs should complete the training modules that their associates are completing for several reasons:
• To vette the program and ensure that it's correct and applicable to the company/branch/department.
• To ensure that the appropriate lessons are integrated into the operation of the company.
• To ensure that line management does not resist the integration into the operation of the company.
• To demonstrate that the training is important by their example.
• So they can discuss the program with associates to reinforce the notion that attendees will be expected to listen, absorb and relate the training to their job.
Don’t allow knuckleheads to mess up your counter for everyone
There are those who say that you should close down your counter. Their point is: When you run the cost numbers, running a counter is very expensive, which makes it very difficult to turn a profit. I agree that counters are expensive but I believe they are, like it or not, also part of a full-service wholesaler’s offering. There are two functions to many counters:
• A place for customers to walk in, order and obtain the product, while they wait.
• The pick-up location for will-call orders that were placed on your web store or through one of your sales team (inside, outside, phoning the counter.)
I don’t have “slam-dunk, no-brainer” recommendations for a couple problems I observe at busy wholesalers’ counters; but your company should provide specific guidance to your team on how you want them to handle them in your company:
The counter team is tasked with taking phone calls while handling counter walk-ins. The counter might be backed up yet the counter team is expected to answer phone calls quickly so the caller doesn’t hang-up and call another wholesaler. Some wholesalers bet on the counter customer not getting mad enough to drive to another wholesaler, so many put the walk-in customer effectively “on hold” to handle the phone call. It is really hard to do this without being rude to the walk-in.
I was recently at a local supply house and the counter guy actually stopped mid-sentence in our conversation to take a call from some knucklehead(KH)* who had a bunch of questions and who was apparently lonely since he also wanted to talk about the weather and baseball. Plus, the KH, after all the time-wasting, didn’t order anything. I could tell the counter guy was trying to disconnect but just wasn’t able to get the KH off the phone.
I almost walked out but was faked out by the KH as he feigned an end the conversation with, “Ok that’s all for now” but then dived into a “One more question” four-minute extension of the call. This KH was no amateur at burning time. In the end, after a long wait, they didn’t even have the part I needed. The counter guy was apologetic but I was still aggravated at the end of the visit having waited almost 10 minutes to get that simple information that he could have handled in 10 seconds. It was mostly the KH’s fault, but guess who I and most customers will blame? Will I use this wholesaler again? Probably, but only after I have tried the other wholesaler located about a half-mile down the street.
Many wholesalers expect their counter team to somehow magically provide good service to both customers in this situation without much guidance other than, “Whatever you do, make sure not to get either customer mad.” This is a management cop-out. Ideally, you will provide better guidance to your team so they, at least, are trying to do it the way you would like it handled.
Some wholesalers push calls to inside sales or outside sales, while others will flood the counter with managers and supervisors to handle a surge of business. Some are able to send calls to HQ or other branches when the customer just needs to order some materials for a job. Some put the phone caller on hold saying, “I’m helping a customer right now, can I put you on hold? I’ll be right back with you.” I would be interested in any suggestions on how you have handled this dilemma in your company.
Counter line roulette
Another common situation is similar. You are operating multiple terminals at your counter so customers line up in front of each terminal waiting for their turn. So far, so good. Then one knucklehead trade customer, or even worse, a homeowner, (see disclaimer, page 8) gets to the terminal and decides to design his entire project while standing at the terminal oblivious to the line of steaming customers behind him. So that line stalls and everyone else in that line is now stuck. They are probably annoyed with the guy but mad at the wholesaler by association. They get especially offended when their competitor, who got there 10 minutes after them, is walking out with material and they are stuck burning billable time at the wholesaler’s counter.
Some wholesalers have extra terminals at the counter so they can bring out inside salespeople or managers and even execs when the counters are really backed up. Some would say this is the old urgent/important task dilemma where your focus is sidetracked doing urgent tasks versus the important tasks. So managers at the counter aren’t managing and execs aren’t doing whatever it is that execs do when they are closeted in their offices. I take the position that this is one of the important ways to demonstrate that you care about the customer and his time. It is also an important way for managers and execs to get some customer face-time. It is, however, very disruptive to the people who are called in to serve customers.
I suggest you look at what some other industries that also experience major queuing issues are doing for ideas. (Airlines, banks and fast food.) In some locations their solution is to have a single line that feeds all terminals so all customers get served in the order they arrive. So when things are backed up, customers at least don’t have to endure the added insult of losing at counter line roulette. It takes a little rework in their locations but it prevents bad feelings by association when a customer selects the line with the knucklehead in it. I have not seen a wholesaler use this approach yet, so if you have, please let me know how it has worked for your company.
In any case, take time to give your team guidance in how you expect customers to be treated in these situations. If you just leave it to their imagination, you might be amazed, negatively, with how your hard-earned customers get mistreated.
Rich Schmitt is president of Schmitt Consulting Group Inc., a management consulting firm focused on distribution and manufacturing clients for pricing, consulting seminars and profit improvement. He is also the co-owner of Schmitt ProfiTools Inc. (SPI), which provides web storefronts and handheld tools, print catalog software, content creation and services, and pricing management and analysis. Visit his company websites at www.go-scg.com and www.go-spi.com. Schmitt can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org