Robert BoguskiDiligence can pay off. (Sometimes.)

The call punctuated one otherwise listless afternoon.

“Can you come over for a meeting?”

Sure.

She never wants to order anything from us. She claims her process is perfect, hence no need for testing. She calls only when she wants to vent her spleen or get some free advice. She thinks our on-demand, zero-notice consultation time is limitless. No statute of limitations. She also really likes the value-added component of free advice, which she can mark up and pass along. That advice also tends to make her process more perfect than it already is. Imagine that: perfecting perfection. Did I mention that enabling wisdom was free?

“I need to vent.”

What a surprise. Fire away.

I’m a good listener. Too good. I should bring an egg timer with me to charge. By the minute. Kind of like lawyers. But I don’t, in spite of my better judgment. I get exactly what I deserve.

“What do you do when they come to you with a test proposal with nothing to document it?”

Say what?

“Seriously, how do you handle situations where the customer wants to set up a test strategy – indeed, knows they have to have one, but doesn’t have the faintest clue how to go about doing it?”

I view them with prejudice and extreme suspicion. Then I charge them a lot of money. Take it or leave it.

Her turn to say, “Say what?”

Say what yourself. You heard what I said.

“Yes, but I wanted to make sure I heard what you said.”

Thanks for clarifying. Does the thought of having to go back and propose charging the customer more money for your time make you break out in hives?

“More like a cold, clammy sweat.”

Then I’d recommend you join Invertebrates Anonymous. First step to reform is recognizing you have a problem. I sense recognition. No charge for the referral. Don’t mention it.

She doesn’t. Rest assured the fruits of this dialogue are hastily coming to an RFQ near you.

Another day, another imaginary dollar, or twelve hundred, added to the psychic income bank account. Too bad they can’t be redeemed like frequent flyer miles. Hell, I’d even settle for a lousy drink coupon. Takes the edge off darker thoughts about cowardice.

Email from a customer. Wants to send a board to me to be retested. Seems it failed in the field recently. We tested it slightly over two years ago. I sense anxiety building.

But I also sense, by tone and implication, it’s somehow my fault. And our fault has come down through the years to revisit us.

For this, and many things, we have warranties. Still, it’s a customer with a problem. And anyway, he’s a nice guy, so I’d like to help. My fatal weakness is rearing up again.

Sure, send the board over. I figure his driver will drop it off later today.

He’s at our front door in 20 minutes. In my office 30 seconds later. No small talk; right to the point. Breathlessly, he wants to know how fast we can troubleshoot the board. Hmm, must be urgent. Years of experience enable one to discern requirements like this.

“How long will this take? I owe our customer an answer. We’re under a lot of pressure on this one.”

Pressure to do what? Make it go away? Deflect the blame on us? Change the subject?

No doubt unique in world history.

A day or two max. After we quote it. Of course, your company doesn’t pay its bills, and doesn’t like the fact that I put them on C.O.D. once I discovered it failed to pay its bills, so when your betters see those terms on our quote, they’ll shut this project down faster than a bad habit. And guess what: You will still have a problem, with an unhappy customer behind demanding answers, which you won’t be able to give. Might as well prepare your concession speech.

And so it went.

I’m not happy, much less proud, to admit my prediction of the outcome was spot on. I don’t derive any satisfaction from anticipating vengeful institutional stupidity. I only offered to help, but his boss, a '70s kind of guy, who adheres to a different ideal (in the timeless tradition of those who wield their own businesses as glorified reward-and-punishment systems), killed the project, exactly as I predicted he would, right on time. Now there are two unhappy customers in the world, mine and his. Within 24 hours he was back for his board, and yes indeed he still had a problem, not one step closer to a solution. Now he has the delightful task of explaining that to his customer, whose status requests are piling up. You can be sure his boss won’t lift a finger to assist.

When I emailed my guy the next day offering encouraging words, the only eloquence he could offer was a disconsolate, “This sucks.”

Three days of good intentions wasted on nothing. Ego (or is it Id?) won again. Nothing gained.

Another day. A Friday. Unusually busy with quoting activity, the fruits of a perfect storm of many customers waking up to the realization that testing their boards prior to shipment might be a good thing (usually learned the hard way). Measured against the cost of scrap and field returns, it’s cheap insurance. But people learn that truth at differing rates. Nevertheless, increased comprehension is good for business.

That particular Friday, one stressed-out customer needed two test quotes fast. Never mind that customer received its complete turnkey documentation package two weeks (10 working days) prior, was required to submit its own turnkey quote 10 working days hence, and this being Day 10, magnanimously required us to contribute our portion of the deal within four hours. It forgot to send us the RFQ package until the very last day, or worse, figured we could churn out a quote in four hours under all circumstances. (Like Digi-Key. They’re all widgets anyway.) No need to share it with us or alert us prior to Day 10. Good ol’ reliable test engineers!

Good feelings aside, we were now the Gating Item.

We told our customer we couldn’t turn the quote in four hours. Had a backlog of RFQs to plow through. First come, first serve, y’know. Fair is fair.

The customer’s program manager was having none of it.

“Well, if you can’t get this back to us by close of business Friday, can you send it to us Saturday? Or if Saturday won’t work, can you send it to us Sunday?”

Who do you think we are, Foxconn mindlessly jumping at the whim of Steve Jobs? You scheduled your own problems; you can damn well schedule them out.

Much digital eyelash batting ensued. And sighs. And begging. All via email. (Such talent that program manager had!) We are suckers for begging.

We caved.

We got the quotes done and submitted Friday night.

Still waiting for the order.

Not long after – the following week, in fact – that same customer sent us three additional RFQs. Same drill: We need them turned around instantaneously, or else we’re all going to die.

Wasn’t there a fairytale about a boy crying wolf? Ended badly for him, I recollect.

Not being keen on being an accessory to needless and heartbreaking program manager mortality, we beavered away at our quoting. Until we discovered that we already had the data. From previous orders.

We asked our customer what was up. Everything you sent us matches data we already have on file.

“Oh no, our own customer insists there are ECOs applied to these boards.”

Care to share them with us?

“The customer doesn’t release copies of their ECOs.”

So we are reduced to forensic pathologists, trying to deduce what was changed. For free. Can’t your customer simply tell us?

“They’re busy doing important things. They expect their vendors to figure it out and quote accordingly.”

We did figure it out. These are repeat orders.

“No, our customer insists these are new revisions. If you aren’t sure, quote them as new orders to be safe.”

To be safe, I think we should quote them as repeat orders, so that they’re cheaper. Why do you want your customer to pay more than they should?

“We need to submit our quotes as soon as possible.”

I think we should submit correct quotes as soon as possible.

“We can’t keep the customer waiting.”

Why not, as long as we get it right the first time?

“Because any delay means there’s a high probability we’ll lose the order.”

If you quote as new a job that should be a repeat, there’s a 100% certainty you won’t get the order. And you’ll open the door to competitors eager to exploit your perceived weakness, namely that you lack transparency and fail to keep your customer fully informed about the cost implications of changes. Oh, and that you overcharge.

Silence.

Sales Manager from that customer calls me the next day, agreeing with every point in that discussion, thanking us for pointing out the documentation discrepancies, and saving them from inadvertently overcharging. They also got the order, he was pleased to inform me, which means we’ll get the order.
Vindication.

Now that’s time well spent.

Robert Boguski is president of Datest Corp. (datest.com); rboguski@datest.com. His column runs bimonthly.

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