Delivering on time Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Meeting customer demands is a constant thought rolling through Dan Oliver’s mind.

The president and part-owner of Global Body & Equipment Co., a metal and plastic parts manufacturer, knows if his 45 employees have a customer communication breakdown it can be detrimental for the company and even his customers.

“It may be my customer’s customer is the guy that’s really being demanding,” Oliver says. “But if my customer can’t meet his customer’s demand, then we both lose.”

Good customer service involves solid communication, honesty and allowing employees to make decisions.

Smart Business spoke with Oliver about how to maintain customer satisfaction.

Q. What are the keys to understanding and meeting customer needs?

We go there. We go to the customer’s place. We try to understand their process. We see how they’re assembling the stuff, how they build it, how is it going to be used, mostly just trying to spend time with the customer to understand the real need.

I’m an old-fashioned guy. I go to my customers and (have) one-on-one-type interaction. That’s the only way I can really understand their business. You can’t do it electronically.

Whether it’s you go to visit them or have them come here so they understand what we do and how we do it. But just try to develop a partnership.

We really view our customers as a partnership because we become the manufacturing arm for that company in many cases.

Q. How often should you communicate with customers?

That depends on the size of the customer and the needs of the customer.

A lot of our interaction is driven by the fact that lead times today are so short people aren’t carrying inventory, especially in the last 18 months. With uncertainties, people aren’t holding a lot of inventory, so when they need something, they need it in a hurry. So we try to meet those demands, and in many cases, instead of three weeks lead time, they need it in 10 days.

(It’s asking,) ‘How can we do that? Or can I get you half of them? What do you really need to get out of trouble?’ In order to help them and meet those needs, you’ve just really got to communicate a lot with them.

Q. How do you remain honest with customers about what you can and can’t provide?

I try to be as upfront as I can and tell them, ‘These are the issues. Here’s what I’m trying to deal with; this is what I can do. What does that do to you?’ In some cases, we may have to work overtime, or we may have to bring in some people on the weekend or do something really costly to meet their needs, and I have to understand, OK, is it really necessary to do that or not?

We try to work through whatever the issue is. That goes back to the partnership thing. If you develop the relationship enough that they view you as a partner, then they’re more apt to say, ‘OK here’s my real problem; this is the issue.’ Tell me what the issue is and we’ll do what we can to deal with it.

Q. How do you monitor customer satisfaction?

That’s a difficult one to do. To me, I make sure that I’m visiting or communicating with the top-level people of the other company. That’s more of the discussion I have with the other presidents: How are we doing from their perspective?

I do it more on a one-on-one. I have a few number of customers so I can do that.

A lot of times I am very specific about what the issue was, and have we solved that to your satisfaction, did we change whatever to make the issue improve.

Q. Do you have any final advice on maintaining customer satisfaction?

To me one of the things is hire good people and trust them that they’ll make good decisions. I’m a smart enough guy to know that I have to have people making decisions every day to run this business successfully. I try to instill that into our people and it goes to customer service.

If my inside sales guy senses that we’ve got a customer that has a problem, he’s going to go out to the production guys and he’s going to try to get them to change. In most cases, they work those things out without me ever getting involved. And I don’t need to get involved if I have good people.

I’ve always said there’s nine ways to skin a cat, well I say that because I tell my people, ‘This is the goal, this is what we’re trying to accomplish here, and you guys are the best at doing that.’ I try to empower those people to make decisions. You do that by trusting them.

The other thing is you have to have an environment where they feel safe enough to do that. If everybody is trying to [cover themselves] all the time, that’s a waste. I discourage that when someone is trying to cover their hind end because a mistake was made or a decision went bad, because I know the worst decision is no decision. Make the decision, and if it’s wrong we’ll fix it. I don’t cut somebody’s head off because they made a bad decision.

Over time people become comfortable at making decisions, which allows you then to react to the short lead times and the customers’ needs because they can make those decisions that need to happen very quickly, and they don’t have to wait for the boss’s boss to get involved, they can do it. That’s how we can respond to our customers quickly.