Let’s Get Personal

By Peter L DeHaan

It seems that lessons can be found all around us – life lessons, business lessons, lessons of what to do, and lessons of what not to do. I wonder how many of these learning opportunities are missed because I am too busy, too caught up in myself, or too preoccupied to spot them. The ones that I do notice, I find instructive and beneficial. It seems that whenever a principle, concept, or example is played out before me in real life, that the theoretical becomes existent and the obscure becomes comprehensible.

A case in point is my printer. I am looking for a new one. Not the printer that prints this magazine, but rather my local printer who handles or more correctly, handled – my business stationary and other printing needs.

I had been using the same printer for 17 years – or what was essentially the same printer. This bridged a time of many changes. On my part, it transcended two places of employment, with different office locations; on their part it spanned three ownerships, a time of expansion and then contraction, several name changes, and finally a merger. We had stayed together through it all. Until something happened.

I began using this printer because they were close to my office, had competitive pricing, and were accommodating and easy to work with. These are astute business reasons for making a wise and prudent vendor selection: convenience, price, and service. So began my saga.

What struck me was their collective friendliness. It didn’t matter who I talked with, whether it was on the phone or in person. When we conversed, they were always friendly. The next step beyond friendliness is acquaintance and finally relationship. I got to know the owner, who never felt it condescending to wait on me – and his key staff. We had a relationship. With a relationship comes understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. Let me explain.

Although they exemplified the adage to “under promise and over deliver” there were occasions when things did not go as expected. Sometimes this was my fault, sometimes theirs, but we worked together for the common good of our long-term relationship to figure out an acceptable solution. I understood that they were in business to make money, that ultimately they needed me to be a profitable account; likewise they understood that I needed their product to be in an acceptable and usable form. If we didn’t have a relationship, instead of seeking our mutual benefit, we would have sought our individual self-interest; we would have become adversarial.

Similarly, relationship begets tolerance. Tolerance overlooks the small stuff, the things that don’t really matter. If the wrong paper was used, but didn’t affect its essential utility, it was tolerance that accepted it. However, if the paper selection was integral to its final form or function, then reprinting was in order, and it was relationship that prompted their desire to reprint and tolerance that gave me the desire to allow for extra time. Lastly is the relational benefit of forgiveness. If a deadline was missed, I would want to be forgiving as a byproduct of our relationship. If I needed to unexpectedly move up a routine project to a rush job or needed to change a parameter in mid production, they would choose to not only be accommodating, but tolerate of any lack forethought or planning on my part.

One day I walked into their shop. In the time that it took me to stride from the door to the counter, three people momentarily stopped their work, glanced up smiling, and cheerfully greeted me by name. They were glad to see me and I was happy to be there. It was Bob who approached me. “We’re just like Cheers,” he beamed, “We’re the printer, where everybody knows your name!”  He was right, they did know my name and that made me feel welcomed and appreciated. Although I lack the requisite first-hand experience to comprehend the importance of going to a bar where one is known, I do understand the benefit of being known and appreciated at one of my business partners.

Bob and I got to know each other quite well over the years. Our kids were both in marching band at their respective schools, giving us a commonality and non-business point of connection. Although I am not a hunter, I enjoyed hearing of his adventures in the woods and his ensuing success or lack thereof. In like manner, he heard about my business trips, weekend plans, and home improvement projects. When Bob bought into the business, he was quick to share his exciting news; now we had one more area of connection and mutual understanding.

I changed jobs and Bob’s downtown shop was no longer convenient for me, but I kept going anyway. When he relocated to manage a satellite store, I followed him there, rejoicing that it was closer for me. Later, when a downturn in the economy made it necessary for that location to be shuttered, my loyalty followed him to a third location. It was not as convenient, but the extra drive was worth it to see my friend Bob.

A while ago, they “merged” with another company. This resulted in yet another name change and a subsequent closing of Bob’s satellite office. A month ago, needing to have some envelopes printed, I returned to their original location. I hoped to find Bob there and the other people who I had known for so long. I was dismayed to see no one I knew and for no one who knew me. They didn’t understand my history with them that spanned decades and they made no effort to be friendly or to get to know me. To them, I represented an order, not a relationship; I was an invoice, not a business partner.

It’s not that these things are integral to having envelopes printed; they are not, but they are a pleasant bonus. Having a personal connection with my printing vendor does not have a direct bearing on the quality of their output and does not affect the utility of the final product. In a hard core business sense, these things don’t matter.

Or do they? When I picked up my order, I was shocked at the bill. Their rates had gone up a lot, but foolishly I had not checked.  I had given the new regime the trust earned by old and was paying the price – quite literally – for that lapse. When I began using the envelopes I was again distressed. There were problems with two of the first 20 envelopes that I grabbed. A 10% error rate is not the quality that I expected or paid for. Although, that ratio has grown decidedly better as I have worked through the box, that initial impression has stuck with me. In the old days, I would have called up Bob and we would have worked something out, but now I did not know whom to call – and didn’t really care. There was no relationship any more, no real reason to complain. Mentally, I was already searching for another printer.

What I learned, what we can all learn, is to get personal with those whom we do business; build relationships with them. Then when an expectation is missed, you can work together to understand and develop a mutually beneficial solution. If a minor problem occurs, tolerance will win out and forgiveness can take place. When the business moves, the name changes, and new owners show up, it is the personal relationships that will hold clients close and keep them from seeking out the competition.

So get personal. In the long run, it is good business.

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