Being a big company is not an excuse for being a rude company Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Every business knows that to survive and succeed it needs customers. What is often ignored, however, is that companies also need vendors and suppliers in order to prosper. In too many organizations, this group is not only frequently neglected but also, at times, abused.

A growing number of savvy organizations have come to realize that their vendors are, in effect, their partners. A company’s success therefore becomes the vendor’s success and is a win-win for everyone.

On the flip side, too many businesses treat their vendors like secondhand citizens who are merely a means to an end. This shabby behavior can manifest itself in many forms, from not returning a supplier’s phone call to being down right belligerent.

What I’m writing about here has nothing to do with negotiating the best possible terms with the lowest possible prices from a vendor. It’s probably almost biological that buyers and sellers butt heads over price. If we take price and terms out of the buyer-vendor relationship, the question becomes what are the key factors that strengthen the working relationship and what weakens it?

Strengthening the partnership usually gets down to promises made and promises kept. The rub occurs when the little annoying things get in the way of the relationship. A company is judged by its cumulative actions. What may seem to be an insignificant series of slights can be as damaging as a single major lapse in appropriate behavior. The big ones don’t happen that frequently. Here’s an analogy. Relatively few people are hit by locomotives, primarily because they’re easy to spot, but a huge number are stung by bees because most don’t see them coming.

One of my pet peeves is how frequently vendors are kept waiting in lobbies. This sends a signal to the vendor that “our time is more valuable than yours; after all, we’re signing your purchase order.” The example I’m using in this column is just a proxy for dozens of ways companies send the wrong message and don’t even know it.

Years ago, I found an effective solution to reduce vendors’ waiting time that cost nothing, worked wonders, and kept my employees on the straight and narrow of how to treat visitors.

To get a sense of what was going on in my company, I regularly took walks through all four floors of our headquarters to see and to be seen. There is something about visibility that sends a signal that the boss is paying attention and not just sitting in an ivory tower. During these walks, I would swing through our lobby, where there was always an abundance of hustle and bustle. Often, when I made a second pass through the lobby on the way back to my office I’d see the same people still waiting from my first pass. It was obvious some employees were treating visitors rudely by disrespecting their time.

I thought, “How in the world could we ask a vendor for this or that when we start out by behaving rudely?” It was time for me to take action.

Here’s what I did. I had a sign made for the receptionist’s desk that bore my signature and read: “If you (the visitor) have an appointment and you’re kept waiting longer than 15 minutes, please pick up the red phone next to this sign, which rings directly on my desk. I will personally come down to greet you.”

Next, I sent a memo to every employee outlining this policy and the reasons for it. I explained that one of our competitive advantages would be how we treat vendors. I pointed out that this was not to be confused with giving the vendors whatever they asked for just because we didn’t want to hurt their feelings. I concluded with the admonishment that if I were called, I would personally rescue the visitor and bring him or her to the policy violator’s office.

Once the sign went up and my memo went out, things began to change. Visitors were greeted promptly or even ahead of the appointed hour. We dramatically improved our reputation as a company that, although very tough negotiators, respected those doing or trying to do business with us. This created a positive buzz among our vendors.

As a P.S. to this story, I never received a call from a single visitor from the date I put in this policy to when I sold the company.

Being big, small or in-between is never an excuse for being rude. And always be on the lookout for bees.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Read Feuer's previous column.