Home | Executive Dialogue | Carole Jesiolowski

Staring Down Sandy

November 1st, 2012

Despite heavy odds, distributors and suppliers on the East Coast were not to be out-whacked by Sandy. Contingency plans proved helpful.

  

On the East Coast this past week, a storm the likes of which has never been seen hit with such brute force that at least 87 people were killed, businesses and schools were shuttered, transportation came to a grinding halt, half of New York City went dark for days. Lower New York City was flooded and without power.  Bridges and tunnels were closed. And if you were able to get into the city when one bridge reopened on Thursday, you better have two more people with you in your car, or you were turned away.

In Levittown, PA, power outages shut down oxygen concentrators, and patients were scrambling for help, calling EMS, hospitals and emergency management.  When the large, electric-powered concentrators fail, patients resort to using small portable oxygen tanks, which empty within a few hours. So many calls were coming into the companies that refill the oxygen tanks looking for refills that they could not keep up. Patients were urged to contact their oxygen supply company to find out about the soonest refill and to consult their doctors to determine if they should be hospitalized.

As bad as it was in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland, New Jersey appeared to get the worst of it. Houses in coastal cities were swept away. Phone calls to two distributors located in Sandy’s path have gone unanswered for several days.

I called GAWDA members located in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania to learn how they were coping with the aftereffects of the storm. As of today, Thursday, November 1, some are still without power and phone service. Seaboard Welding Supply, located two miles from the beach in Oakhurst, NJ, had no water damage, but without power, the phones weren’t working, and they were searching near and far for additional generators.  Vice President Richard Nowell said that calls to the company were being transferred to cell phones, and they were receiving requests from emergency management re filling medical oxygen supplies.  Without power, though, they could not generate oxygen.  

Some GAWDA members indicated that their homes were in trouble, as were those of many employees. 

AWISCO has several locations in the New York City area and thankfully, none were impacted. Some employee homes, however, were in trouble. Vic Fuhrman, vice president of sales & marketing, pointed to the dwindling supply of gas, closed roadways, and bustling storefronts shuttered and shut down. “This is something that we will be facing for a lot of years,” Furman says.

These are just a few small examples of the past few days.  The big question remains: When all is said and done, how much impact will Superstorm Sandy have on local businesses and the wider economy? How much has been lost during these days? Disaster modeling company Eqecat estimates Sandy caused up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses. According to the Insurance information Institute, Hurricane Sandy now ranks as the fourth-costliest catastrophe ever in the United States, behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 attacks of 2001, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

With so many of our gases and welding customers feeling the impact, what will this mean for our businesses going forward?

 

 More on Emergency Prep and Disaster Planning
Awaiting the Storm’s Price Tag

Video:   How Small Businesses Can Rebuild After Sandy 

Distributors Develop Emergency Action Plans

Six Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

PHMSA’s Emergency Response Guidebook

 

“No Problem”

October 5th, 2012

I don’t know what is going on with customer service lately.   The next time you purchase something, or ask a question, or request a service, listen for the response.  

 Me:  “I’d like to purchase that television.”  Clerk:  “No problem.”

 Me:  “Would you give me directions to the shoe department?”  Clerk:  “No problem.”

 Me:  “I believe you gave me the wrong bag.” Clerk: “No problem.”

 Me:   “I’d like to order the lobster with that fine (expensive) bottle of wine.”  Clerk: “No problem.”

 Me:  “Thank you.” (after purchasing $182 of groceries, handing over cash and receiving change).   Clerk:  “No problem.” 

 How did the words “no problem” become the go-to response from service providers?  How did it get to this point that the service provider uses words that make me feel like I, the customer, have done something wrong, created a “problem” and they are graciously telling me “not to worry about it”?

After interviewing Service Technicians from gases and welding distributorships across the country (See article in September’s Welding & Gases Today), my faith in customer service has been restored.  These guys often deal with customers in crisis, as an equipment breakdown has a domino effect, usually ending at the sales numbers. 

So when a customer needs it fixed, they need it fixed right now.   Service Techs get this. And they do everything they can to get the customer up and running, as fast as they can.  Most of them will say they gravitate toward the broken equipment no one else can fix.  They like figuring things out, working on complex challenges. Hearing the words “nN problem” from a gases and welding service technician is met with relief. 

Independent distributors are quick to say that their customer service sets them apart from the competition. Listen to how your employees respond to customers.  They’re saying words like “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” “Can I help you” rather than “No problem.”  Why?  Because they know that customer service does set the company apart.

So as I fork over a thousand dollars and change to the clerk at the electronics store for a new TV, and he responds with, “No problem,”  I will sigh and hope that this fad goes away like other words (remember the overuse of “paradigm,” “buzzword” and “sea change”).  

Perhaps I’ll ask him, “Why would it be a problem for you to accept my money, answer a question, or provide customer service?” and hope he can explain it to me.

Do Your Customers Care If It’s ‘Made In The USA’?

September 25th, 2012

Gases and welding equipment is a global market, even for gases such as helium (a globally traded product) and, for a while last year, acetylene (due to the need to import calcium carbide). Lately there has been a great emphasis on the resurgence of American manufacturing, so it got me thinking: Just how important is it for a product to be made in the USA?

American-made, to many, is a symbol of quality. You could argue that quality is subjective, but as many GAWDA members know well, strict government regulations in the U.S. demand quality. In my discussion with Uniweld President David Pearl II for a recent article on counterfeiting, he spoke about how the “Made in the USA” seal is a symbol of quality outside of the country as well.

“Some countries in the Middle East have had issues with bad counterfeit products coming in and people getting hurt when those products did not perform like they were supposed to. They would really like to have product from the United States, so they are passing laws requiring the country of origin to be stamped right on the product.” Trying to skirt these laws by putting “Made in the USA” on counterfeit products, he adds, is now a serious crime. While we may think highly of ourselves, it seems others do too. As Pearl explains, “Made in the USA” is a universal symbol of quality.

The opinion that matters most, however, is that of the end-user customer. Jim Earlbeck, president at Earlbeck Gases & Technologies in Baltimore, MD, related the reaction from his customers when he has represented lesser-known foreign manufacturers whose products offered great features. “When you talk to the American welder about buying a machine that’s made in Finland, not his favorite American-made machine, he really pushes back. You really have to sell your tail off to convince him that the value is truly there.”

Quality products can—and do—come from countries all over the world. That’s one of the great things about being part of a global market; innovation can sprout up anywhere. So just how much weight does an American-made label carry in a customer’s buying decision? Does it matter at all? I don’t have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Building The Perfect Service Tech

September 21st, 2012

Qualities of a Great Service TechAs I wrote in a previous blog entry, a service tech must be many things. Among them: mechanically and technically inclined, able to troubleshoot, customer-oriented. But few service techs bring the whole package right from the start (otherwise we would have no need for training!). Knowing that many of these qualities can be developed, which characteristics do GAWDA members think are the most important for a service tech to have?

Welding & Gases Today put the question to distributor executives in charge of hiring service techs. Their responses included mechanical skill, ability to read schematics, outgoing personality, understanding of how to talk with customers, and willingness to learn.

What do the technicians themselves say? Brian Hamilton, industrial service technician at Norco told Welding & Gases Today, “If I were hiring a service technician, I would want mechanical and electrical aptitude, along with patience and a willingness to learn. You don’t just wake up and know this stuff.”

Another technician, A-OX Welding Supply’s John Leonard, says he’d look for a technician with technical skills, along with a positive attitude. “Being around customers, I’ve learned how to relate to them, how to read them, and how to be diplomatic on what I say and how I act. Important skills to have.”

Other industry members have been talking on LinkedIn about the qualities a service tech must have. Technical ability and customer service skills were once again chief among the requirements, but less talked about qualities like pride in workmanship, troubleshooting ability and a logical mindset gave some interesting food for thought.

Based on these discussions, I’ve boiled the qualities of a great service tech down to five. Now I want you to help decide what quality is the single most important quality for a service tech to have by casting your vote in the poll below.

If you believe the most important quality is something other than what’s listed below, use the comments section to share your thoughts.

The Risk Of Being Innovative

September 19th, 2012

Counterfeit Products Affect Gases and Welding Industry

Innovation is a cornerstone of GAWDA members’ businesses, both distributors and suppliers. That’s one of the reasons last week’s article about counterfeiting on Welding & Gases Today Online is so startling. But counterfeiting, by its true definition—i.e., reproducing a product and marketing it under the manufacturer’s name—is only part of the problem. Along with actual counterfeiting, manufacturers have dealt with related issues like copyright infringement, including unauthorized use of company designs (e.g. welding helmet designs), company trademarks and more.

In talking with suppliers who have dealt with these issues, it’s evident that counterfeiters are rarely brought to justice. First, the manufacturers have to find the culprits (not an easy task), and then work within the legal systems of whatever country the issues occur in. If the manufacturer is lucky enough to a) spot the counterfeit, b) trace it back to its maker and c) get the justice system to take notice, the process can still take years, as Uniweld found out in winning its 10-year court battle with one importer.

With varying degrees of copying as noted above, where do we draw the line? What if instead of a product, another company steals an innovative idea—or even an entire business model? Inc. Magazine recently dealt with this issue in its article, “Lessons From the World’s Most Ruthless Competitor,” an article about business copycats. The article focuses on a group of businesses that specialize in copying successful Internet startups.

The copycats are unabashed, even proud of their own opportunistic moves. One of these businessman, Magnus Resch, managing partner at German company Springstar, told Inc. Magazine, “What we’re doing here is entrepreneurship lite.” He adds, “We are scared of doing something completely new. That’s why we are so good at copying.”

The companies targeted by copycats are often small startups who had a unique idea for a website. Once these businesses become successful or attract large investors, the copycats build their knock-off businesses in a fraction of the time that it took to build the original brands, and working with larger budgets, too.

In reality, the issues the startups face are similar to those facing manufacturers in the gases and welding industry. Many hours and hard-earned dollars are spent on developing and perfecting a product, only to have that product unceremoniously copied. ArcOne President Ed Martin asks, “How do you put a price on years of development?” In both instances, there is very often little recourse that can be taken against the copiers.

When I think of “entrepreneurs,” I think of the men and women of GAWDA who have worked hard to build strong companies. For Resch to suggest that copying another business is entrepreneurship (even if it is the “lite” version), is a little hard to digest.

As the title of this post suggests, it seems that being innovative comes with the risk of being ripped off. So what do you think? Is it worth the risk?

What You Can Learn From Your Service Techs

September 14th, 2012

“I think every owner should spend a day with the mechanics.” This was the reaction of Jeff Schmeck, director of a Texas supply chain company after he served as “Mechanic for a Day” alongside his company’s service technicians. Schmeck relates that he initially did the event to encourage 100% participation in his company’s United Way drive. But what he got out of it was an appreciation for the demands his technicians face and insights into how his company could improve its processes and help the technicians serve customers better.

Schmeck shares what he learned in Welding & Gases Today’s online-exclusive article, “Do You Know What Your Employees Need?

For me, Schmeck’s experience brought to mind the CBS show Undercover Boss, where company leaders go in disguise to learn more about their companies. Curious to see if a boss had ever posed as a service tech trainee, I ran a search and came across an episode where DirecTV CEO Michael White did just that. I’ve included a video of the segment below.

A few things struck me about White’s service tech stint. Like the technicians distributors nominated for GAWDA Service Technician Honor Roll, the technician in this episode (Phil) stopped at nothing to make sure the customer was satisfied. Schmeck, in his article, was likewise impressed with just how hard working his mechanics were.

White also learned the sometimes unfortunate answer to Schmeck’s question, “Have I assessed what resources my mechanics require to do their jobs?” Phil revealed that he had to provide his own GPS; and that the equipment stocked on technicians’ trucks was not always adequate.

White was apparently impressed and inspired by his time with service tech Phil. In an interview with BNET after the episode aired, White announced that the company would institute a Technician Appreciation Day as a result of his experience. I guess he had the same reaction we had after talking with GAWDA’s amazing service techs, one of the reasons we implemented Service Technicians Month as a way to recognize the industry’s oft-unheralded technicians.

Phil’s story is a perfect example of a technician going beyond the call of duty. He could have simply told the customer, “Too bad—I don’t have the equipment I need.” Instead he called around to find the equipment and make sure the problem was fixed before he left. Although it was a simple act, Phil’s great service turns what could have been a disaster into a positive experience, possibly saving the company a lost customer.  It’s this kind of story that we’re looking for in our Customer Service Technician Contest. If Phil was a GAWDA member, I know I’d vote for him.

Would you consider working as a technician for a day as Schmeck recommends? If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

As promised, here is the Undercover Boss video. White’s stint as a technician begins around the 5:47 mark.

Click here to fast forward to the segment being discussed (video will open in a new window).

GAWDA Convention: Members Take To Social Media

September 11th, 2012

It’s hard to believe we’re nearly through another GAWDA Convention, but here we are at the end of Day 3 of GAWDA’s 68th Annual Convention in Colorado Springs, CO. The first three days have been full of great networking opportunities and yet another incredible display of generosity from GAWDA members.

Members have been sharing photos from the Convention on Twitter and Facebook, like this one tweeted that was tweeted out yesterday:

Thanks to Doug O’Dell at TrackAbout for this photo…it’s great to see a full crowd, a strong sign that business has returned (and is hopefully here to stay).

One of the biggest highlights thus far has been the presentation of the 2012 GAWDA Gives Back donations to local charities PEAK Parent Center and Partners In Housing. GAWDA members donated $174,444, giving over $87,000 to each of the two worthy causes. It was obvious that this donation meant a lot to both organizations, who let GAWDA members in on the work they do with a special video and thanks from clients of each group.

This year, for the first time, GAWDA members redoubled their generosity to help the newly established GAWDA Foundation get off the ground. With funding now well over $100,000, the Foundation aims to continue to develop the industry’s workforce. One of the ways it will work toward this is through scholarships for distributors, suppliers or end-users, the first of which will be presented at next year’s SMC.

I received a message on LinkedIn this afternoon from a first-time Convention attendee, who came away impressed with what he experienced. He expressed great pride for what members accomplished by coming together in donating to GAWDA Gives Back, and was very pleased with the program put together by GAWDA.

There’s more to come tomorrow, as we hear from the final two speakers. If their articles in the Fall issue of Welding & Gases Today are any indication, Wednesday’s business session should promise great takeaways for members.

What are your top takeaways from the Convention so far? Share by leaving a comment.

How The Helium Shortage Impacts Football Season

September 7th, 2012

The past week has been a welcome return to football season for fans everywhere. And that means a return to carbon-dioxide filled beverages, welded seats and a few helium-filled balloons. But for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the reunion with helium balloons would be its last for a while.

Going back to the 1940s, Huskers fans have upheld a tradition of releasing red, helium-filled balloons after the team’s first touchdown of every home game. In light of the current helium shortage, this 70-year-old tradition is in jeopardy. Last Saturday, balloons were filled for the school’s season opener for one final balloon release. But instead of the usual 5,000 balloons, only about half of that was filled. The balloon release is officially “on hiatus” for an indefinite period, leaving the school in search of a new tradition. (Got any gas-filled suggestions?)

It seems that helium and football go hand-in-hand at the University of Nebraska. I came across a video on the university’s YouTube channel in a series called “Football Physics.” The video features Professor Tim Gay, who brings science to the football field to see whether a helium-filled football could give a kicker any advantage. Want to find out the answer? The video is below.

The Discovery Channel’s MythBusters did a more comprehensive test of the same question in one episode, and actually predicted that the lighter, helium-filled ball would travel farther. To their surprise, they found that a heavier ball has greater force, and actually flies through the air farther. If footballs were light enough to float, we might have a different outcome.

It should be noted that UNL’s video shows the unsafe practice of inhaling helium—and, as GAWDA distributors can tell you, the dangers associated with helium are anything but a myth.

Even with the Huskers’ storied tradition coming to an end, there are many storylines in the world of football and gases and welding that will live on. What happens when a gases and welding distributor gets together with a football superstar? Read the conversation between South Jersey Welding Supply’s Bob Thornton and Super Bowl champ Joe Theismann here.

Putting The “Service” In “Service Technician”

September 5th, 2012

A service tech—be it a welding equipment repair technician or cryogenic installation technician—must be many things. A technician must be skilled, of course. But skill can be gained through training. Perhaps as much as anything, a technician must be able to interact and communicate with customers. It’s right there in the name—service technician. And great service is not an attribute that is easily taught.

One distributor manager noted recently that service techs are not like salespeople, who are used to being singled out and praised for meeting their goals. Well, all of that is about to end. With Service Technicians Month in our midst, Welding & Gases Today is doing everything it can to recognize the industry’s technicians. And because this aspect of customer service is so important, we want to reward the best example of customer service from a service tech.

During the month of September, W&GT is holding its first ever Customer Service Technician Contest. The concept is simple: share your stories of service techs delivering great customer service. Then it’s up to members to vote on which technician tale is most deserving. Deserving of what? I’m glad you asked.

GAWDA’s supplier members have kicked in to help us honor the industry’s best purveyor of service. The winner will receive more than $500 in prizes provided by industry suppliers. We’ll reveal details of the prize throughout the month of September.

So what do you have to do to take part? It’s simple. Head on over to the Welding & Gases Today group on LinkedIn and look for the discussion called “Customer Service Technician Challenge.” Add your story to the discussion any time during the month of September. Here’s a tip: the earlier you add your entry, the more time people will have to vote for your story.

Finally, it’s up to industry members to cast their votes. To vote, visit the discussion on LinkedIn and simply click the “Like” link under your favorite story. Voting will continue throughout the month of September and run until October 15. You can vote for more than one, so you don’t have to worry about a “better” entry popping up later on. Just be sure to check back every few days for new entries.

So show us your customer service in the spirit of Service Technicians Month—and win some great prizes in the meantime. Visit the main contest page for full details and the latest updates.

UPDATE: When we set out to create this contest, we had a goal of at least $500 in mind. Since the writing of this blog, I found out that Abicor Binzel has generously contributed $500 in cash for the contest winner. I can’t reveal any other prizes just yet, but needless to say, there’s much more to come. The winner will receive more than $1,000 in prizes.

An Unfortunate Side Effect Of Late Retirement?

August 31st, 2012

Too Old To Be The BossIn Welding & Gases Today’s On The Edge column, we write about controversial, divisive and otherwise discussion-worthy topics. The topics come out of news and current events, or sometimes they come from a particularly poignant comment made in a conversation with a GAWDA member.

Such is the case with the recent article, “Too Old To Be The Boss,” which looks at the challenge of knowing when the time is right to turn the business over to the next generation. As one distributor put it, “It’s unfortunate that in some companies, the leaders just hang on to the reins too late.” Distributors at several companies had some very interesting things to say on both sides of the issue.

Undoubtedly, this is an issue businesses have struggled with for decades. But I began to wonder if maybe the issue has been exacerbated by the recent downturn in the economy. Last year, Welding & Gases Today conducted a survey of GAWDA members and found out that an overwhelming majority—77%—of GAWDA members have changed their retirement plans due to the economy. In other words, a lot of business owners are sticking around longer, and longer.

So is it at the expense of the next generation of leaders? The distributor whose comment spawned the recent On The Edge article would seem to suggest just that: “I came to the realization that I could actually hinder my company more than help it if I don’t make a change. We all have egos, but every leader reaches a point where fresh ideas aren’t fresh anymore.”

It may be hard to measure the right time for an owner to retire and let the next generation take over; and that number is one that shifts from situation to situation. But what we can measure is when GAWDA members say they actually plan to retire. In the 2011 survey, 0% of respondents said they could realistically retire before age 65. The greatest percentage was split between 66-69 and 70-75, while a few members said they would never retire.

The economy has been a setback for a lot of businesses in financial terms. But all of this leads me to wonder whether it could wind up being a setback in the development of the next generation of leaders. What do you think? Will the changing landscape of retirement have any lasting impact on the industry’s future leaders?