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“No Problem”

Friday, 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’?

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).

An Unfortunate Side Effect Of Late Retirement?

Friday, 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?

Where Do You Rank Among Your Competitors?

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Plastic tape measurePicking up on my blog last week about being accountable for good service (“How Do You Know If You Have Bad Customer Service”), it’s important to look at service through the customer’s eyes. When it’s products—be it a welding machine, a cylinder of gas, etc—it’s easy to know if you’re meeting your customer’s needs. But service can be more elusive and difficult to measure in a customer’s eyes.

Arguably worse than bad service is spending time and resources to provide unwanted or unnecessary resources. This is just another reason why it is so important to know and weigh the ways your customers are measuring you as a distributor…So how exactly are they measuring you?

According to Bill Moore, senior vice president with bearings manufacturer SKF, “Top-tier distributors can bring into play engineering assistance from their manufacturer suppliers to optimize the performance of components.” That service, Moore goes on to tell Industry Week, can help address problems like recurring equipment failure.

Another thing manufacturers like SKF look for is how prepared a distributor is to react to an emergency situation. Within the gases and welding industry, distributors have been tested over the last year and a half by numerous challenges ranging from supply shortages like helium and acetylene to weather catastrophes (tornadoes, blizzards, etc). Moore says an emergency response plan is a sign of a top-notch distributor.

There are countless ways to measure a distributor, and perhaps the best way to know what your customers care about is to ask. Whether you use formal survey, a personal conversation or even social media, your customer will appreciate the fact that you care what he thinks.

How do your customers measure you as a distributor? Share by leaving a comment.

This Welding Supply Embezzler Could Have Worked For You

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I’ve talked before about the risk email scams pose to industrial distributors; but sometimes the area of greatest vulnerability is within your own organization…and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a large company or a small business. Just ask the former owners of Colorado Welding Supply, whose bookkeeper was found guilty of embezzling more than half a million dollars from the business just this past month.

According to the Colorado Gazette, Michele Bratcher was found guilty of “an extraordinary pattern of embezzlement.” Facing up to a possible 12 years in prison, Bratcher was sentenced to 18 months in a jail work-release program and 12 years of intensive probation, and will be forced to repay the nearly $600,000 she stole, plus interest.

While the sentence may appear light when compared with a potential 12-year prison sentence, it was formulated to allow her to begin repaying her former employers as soon as possible. Even so, it’s hard to imagine any sentence that could make up for what the former business owners say helped put the company out of business. “She ruined my life,” former owner Eric Younger told the Gazette. “It was my dream to open up a welding supply business.” Younger says he since been forced to return to work as a long-haul trucker.

Embezzlement is a grave situation for any business owner, but fortunately there are precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk. CPA Edward J. McMillan shared his professional advice in “Is Your Company Ripe For Embezzlement?” He points out that many embezzlement cases have two things in common:

  • First, the embezzler was an employee above suspicion. In the case of Colorado Welding Supply, Bratcher was the daughter of a family friend, hired at that friend’s recommendation.
  • Second, the company was not audited by an independent certified public accounting firm.

McMillan adds that simple steps, like requiring two signatures on checks, can keep employees honest. He uses real-life case studies to show how each company left itself vulnerable, and how each embezzler was caught.

It’s easy to think that embezzlement is something that could never happen to your business; but the case of Colorado Welding Supply just goes to show that embezzlement can happen to anyone, and it is happening in this very industry.

How Do You Know If You Have Bad Customer Service?

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Customer ServiceLast month, I pondered where the industry may be headed, and I received an interesting comment from a distributor sales manager in response. Along with some really insightful remarks about automation and energy markets, I was really struck by his comment about customer service:

We are becoming a nation of complacency when it comes to customer service. We expect no service, therefore we get little in the customer service department. Our industry is not immune to this dilemma. As a matter of fact we may be just as guilty. Most of us think our companies have excellent customer service, when in fact, we don’t.

Keeping our eye on the “ball” when it comes to customers will be key to sustainable growth today and in the future.

GAWDA members take great pride in their service. Particularly with the lively discussions about industry consolidation that are taking place at Welding & Gases Today Online, the issue of service is brought up time and time again as the one thing that differentiates smaller distributors.

But how do you know if you have really good service? You can promise your customers top-notch service, but if even one employee within your organization does not buy into your service mentality, it can compromise the entire culture. So how do you make employees accountable for service?

I put the question out to the Welding & Gases Today group on LinkedIn and received some great responses. Here are a few of them:

Scott Smith says, “The best solution I’ve seen is to make service issues incentivized. Customer Service comes in many forms: shipping papers, billing, timely deliveries, not backordering product, etc. It’s a lot easier to define and track performance than people realize.”

Jacob Marion responds, “Financial incentives do play a part in encouraging good customer service among employees, but it is easy to over emphasize financial incentives. More than we want money, we want something to believe in. Good employees, who care about their work and their customers, believe in something.”

Tom Farley says, “What we in management do is more important than what we say. Your people will follow your lead.”

Now I extend the question to you: How do you hold yourself and your employees accountable for delivering on your customer service promise?

Why Niche Markets Are A Small Business’ Best Friend

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Niche Markets and Industry ConsolidationOver the past few weeks, there has been a great discussion in Welding & Gases Today’s On The Edge section about the impact of industry consolidation on GAWDA members’ businesses. If you haven’t had an opportunity to check it out yet, I recommend starting with small distributors’ reactions (here), then moving on to large distributors (here) and finally suppliers (here).

I was somewhat surprised to discover just how many distributors say they like the current trend of acquisitions. Although it is somewhat telling that while 73% of distributors say it will help their sales, only 42% of distributors say they like consolidation (only 35% dislike it). There is a tenor of apprehension when one distributor says, “Although it is a bit disconcerting to watch all of the independent distributors get eaten up by the giants, it also gives us hope and opportunity in our marketplace.”

Hope and opportunity are something also reflected in the view of Brandon Jones, president at Jones Welding & Industrial Supply (Albany, GA), who says he loves the effect consolidation has had on his business. “At one time we had five different distributors in our market. Now it’s us and one competitor,” he says, adding that as his competitor grows, it loses the ability to provide the same level of personal service.

“It’s still about relationships and service,” says Jones. “I know most of my customers. I sit across the table from them when I take them to lunch, or we play golf, that type of thing. If there’s a problem, they don’t have to filter up to the bureaucracy to get anything done.”

Jones says his business is more profitable than ever, and it’s largely due to finding new ways to compete and continuing to develop customer relationships. “You have to know your market, and you have to know your customers. What works for me in my market might not work for somebody up North or out West.” For his market, Jones has found success by carving out a niche selling steel.

“Steel is a different animal than welding supplies. For the most part, price determines where customers buy their steel, whereas there’s a lot more service that has to be factored in with gases. So I can go to a competitive account and say, ‘I know you don’t buy your welding supplies from me, but we sell steel. Can we quote you on your steel?’ That way, we’re able to develop a relationship through that venue, versus just trying to cold call them from time to time on their welding supply needs.”

As consolidation makes the big distributors bigger, niche markets can be a great way for smaller distributors to sweeten the pot and open doors for new accounts. But as Jones says, it’s important to make sure there is a need for those products and services. He says, “You have to know the weaknesses of your competitor, and you’ve got to know their strengths, so you don’t waste energy and money.”

What are your thoughts about industry consolidation? How are you taking advantage of the opportunities created by acquisitions?