Nip problems in the bud — communicate

    To fight a dragon, fight it when it is small — an important precept in martial arts. Beginnings set the tone for how relationships or projects will go forward. If there is lack of clear communication at the beginning, corrections, some of them painful, may be required later when they are least welcome and loom much larger.
   All too often the easy thing is to get together with a potential client and emphasize all the good points of your business proposal, and conveniently put off the requirements or less attractive tasks that may be required of the client or yourself. Everyone is happy.
   An agreement is reached and the project begins. Then, just as things get really busy, an impasse occurs because you assumed the client was going to do such and such, and he/she assumed you were going to do such and such. These times are at the least embarrassing, at the worst create ill will and added expense and can even stop a project cold.
   Been there, done that. And I’m sure that there are many people reading this now who are shaking their heads in recognition.
   I’ve come up with a few rules for myself that seem to work most of the time and result in happy customers and our getting paid on time and on schedule.
   The first contact is important. The client has a problem and they want to know if I can provide a solution. Listening is key here. I have to discern from what they are saying exactly what they perceive their problem to be.
   If I don’t understand their problem, I need to ask questions until I do understand whether or not I can help them. If after listening and asking some questions the best solution for them is to call Joe Blow down the street, I tell them, “Call Joe Blow.”
   I may lose the sale, but I gain trust and usually future sales along with a reputation for integrity. Once I have decided I can in fact help them, it is important to lay out for them exactly what is involved.
   What the product or service I propose is, how much it will cost, how long it will take and most importantly what they can expect from me and what they need to plan for themselves.
   Once I am satisfied the client understands what I propose I need to explain the order process- lead times, what kind of money is required, and the schedule.
   I usually like to give the client a brochure but also the installation and maintenance requirements for our filters at this point so that I can always refer back to it should questions, or problems, arise at a later time.
   Problems that I have experienced in the past have often been the direct result of myself or employees deviating even in a small way from this process. In one case an employee didn’t discuss with a client a trench that needed to go across a road.
   Later on the client assumed we would do the trenching, we assumed the client would. This resulted in an uncomfortable standoff that resulted in some resentment. Customer relationships may be long-term ones.
   Avoiding resentments is very important for future business relationships. If our employee had simply discussed the trenching at the first site visit, the issue wouldn’t have loomed large later.
   And if problems do come up and I have an unhappy customer? Deal with it right now! These things do not go away or get smaller if neglected; in fact it is just the opposite.
   An old business friend called the process “turning a mole hill into a volcano.” Many years ago, I sold a redwood hot tub to a California couple. Shortly after they filled the tub, they noticed a small leak in the middle of one of the upright staves. They called me to tell me and asked me to come by and fix it. From their description, it sounded like a very easy fix. I therefore put it on my list, not near the top.
   A week later I received an angry call wondering where I was and why I hadn’t fixed it. I went right out there and fixed the problem in five minutes time, apologizing the whole time.
   The point is, if I had gone out the next day and fixed it, an uncomfortable situation would have been completely avoided and I would have on the contrary pleased a customer with good service.
   For some years now, if there is a problem, we drop everything and deal with it first. And we avoid a lot of problems to begin with by carefully communicating with clients in the beginning.

Humphrey Blackburn is the president and CEO of Blue Future Filters in Bellingham.


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