Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Complaint or taking the Piss?

In contrast to businesses that sell consumer goods, and are paid immediately, most manufacturing companies including steel suppliers sell “on account”. Payment for supplies is usually scheduled for between thirty and sixty days after delivery. It is therefore not only good practice to deal with complaints quickly, but often a financial necessity too, as customers will invariably withhold payment until any complaint has been resolved. Indeed I have in the past dealt with companies who would routinely raise minor complaints against almost all deliveries as a tactic to delay payments.

No company likes to receive complaints, but equally customers (generally) do not like to have cause for complaint. Often today manufacturers operate on very low inventory levels and may be locked in to “Just in time” agreements with their customers, meaning that they schedule their raw material to arrive to meet a production run, and it’s almost straight off the wagon and in to the press. Late delivery or delivery of non compliant material can therefore disrupt their production schedule, lead to downtime or cause them to fail to meet their own schedules to customers.

It is therefore important that complaints are dealt with quickly and efficiently, if you are to maintain a good business relationship and ensure continuity business which is so important for manufacturers. A good friend of mine who has sold specialist steel strip for some of the largest European manufacturers holds a view that customer complaints are selling opportunities. Whilst this may seem contradictory, in truth dealing with a complaint in a sympathetic and timely manner can indeed help reinforce and strengthen relationships between companies and ensure ongoing loyalty.

There are few occasions when the seller gets the opportunity to meet and talk with key personnel beyond the purchasing department, but the business of dealing with complaints is one of them. It offers the opportunity to better understand the requirements of the customer beyond the price, and the things that really matter to the production department, tool-making and quality assurance functions within their organisation. Whilst it may often see to the salesman that his main selling tool is price, understanding the other pressures that a buyer faces from within his organisation, and finding allies their can help to build the long term relationships that lead to good business. Indeed often in the past meetings with engineers at a customers works have lead to identifying minor, easily resolved issues that have greatly benefited both parties at little or no cost.

Many years ago when I worked for British Steel (long before it merged and adopted the name Corus), I received a phone call from a customer advising me that the men on the shop floor where complaining that the steel coil we had just delivered smelled atrociously! Now this was a somewhat unusual complaint, but he was clearly serious so we needed to investigate. Part of our process “known as Pickling and Oiling”, involved using acid to clear scale from the surface of the strip, which was then coated with light oil to protect from rusting. It is not unknown for the acid to get “high” towards the end of its production life (it was changed regularly, and cleaned and recycled on site). However checking the production cycle and inspecting on-site material treated at the same time suggested that this was an unlikely cause. Upon visiting the customer and inspecting the material it was easy to confirm that the steel actually smelled like a public urinal, it could take your breath away!

It was a few days later that one of my colleagues, discovered the cause. After processing the steel coil had been stored at the end of the production bay, right under the stop point for the overhead crane. Now when the crane drivers’ needed to answer a “call of nature”, they would face a walk of some five minutes and a climb to reach the toilet. Clearly some of them had found it much easier to drive to the end of the bay “out of sight” and piss straight out of the crane door! Right on to material awaiting despatch to the customer!

I never did come clean about the cause of the smell, and assured our client that it was a problem connected with contaminated oil, which we had taken measures to resolve.

As an aside I did once here of a crane driver who did the same except that the stream of piss came in to contact with a heavy duty power cable that delivered some 2,000 volts straight to his dick. That’s probably urban legend and I never did find out whether it gave his love life a spark!

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