Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bye, Bye Billions--Chapter 1

"Wouldn't everyone like to send a message to the other drivers around them?" It was a rhetorical question but it was the concluding statement of a strategy session. Unfortunately, in hindsight, it was the strategy session that killed a company and almost put a whole financial industry into extinction.


Dave was flipping a pencil against the wall while he was on the phone. It was a coping mechanism to take the frustration out of his voice, and put it into the No. 2 yellow projectile. He picks it up and throws it again against the wall. Picks it up, throws it. Picks it up, throws it.

"Sir, sir...calm down. I can help you if you'd slow dow...Sir, slow down..."

"Sir, I'm not listening until you stop swearing."

He holds the phone away from his ear, and flips the pencil at the wall. There are now 30 little pencil marks on the wall, most clustered in a 6 inch diameter circle but a few scattered far away from the others. A few, pinkish eraser scrapes also show on the white, painted office wall. In his head, he hears the Shirelle's lyrics "Mama said there'll be days like this..."

As plant manager, Dave didn't usually have to address angry customers' complaints. He would if it escalated past his quality manager's expertise. She was very capable but sometimes the immature customers would demand that they get to speak to him. The next request by this person would usually be someone in corporate, of course, with the president of the corporation as the number one request. Like many companies, Dave's had instituted the practice of having the customer service personnel answer, "The Office of the President. How can I help you?" Their conversation would then be concluded as if the corporate person had all authority, or the intimate ear of the man or woman who had ultimate power in the corporation. The matter would be resolved. In some cases, the presumably former customer would finish the call with no more resolution other than an explanation (for the millionth time) that any offer to resolve the situation was as far as the president was willing to go. The customer service personnel had guidelines and full authority to do what was reasonable. To Dave, in some cases, it seemed their limit of compromise was only one step short of giving the angry customer 51% of the corporation's shares.

Dave had this chance to figure out a way to turn this customer around. The customer was a distributor of electronic components for medical laboratories, music studios, computer rigs, motor and generator test panels and anything or anywhere else that would hook up amplifiers, controllers, feedback devices, filters and so on. Probably red in the face, this guy wasn't big but was trying to be. He had promised the Environmental Protection Agency office in Denver that he would deliver a modular electronic rack stocked with some pretty obscure components. Dave's company had one in the catalog that he needed. However, it was out of stock. It was only built when one was ordered. This guy wasn't willing to wait. He had to deliver his rack on Monday. Today was Thursday.

Dave couldn't supply the component he wanted. He could supply a component that would do the primary function of the desired unit. He could then ship to this guy or the EPA the replacement unit next week. The apoplectic man wasn't listening, nor stopping to breath really, and so Dave wasn't able to make this offer...yet.

Handling customers like this wasn't the end of the company. It was the strategic planning meeting the next week that led to its downfall.

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