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Archive for September, 2012

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

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Friday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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”

Wednesday, 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.