While product received may be flawless, the buying experience may still be painful.

In business, as in life, sometimes the little things make all the difference. Those are the small details that in the hustle and bustle of daily life are so easy to overlook. Recently I was reminded of their importance.

My revelation took place at, of all places, a Tier 1 defense contractor’s supplier conference. Such events typically are filled with a mix of chest-pounding, “aren’t we great” pride and ass-kicking, “how high can you jump” supplier partnership bravado. This event was a bit different. Yes, it did include some aspects of the former, but the supplier partnership portion did not follow the expected script.

The 50 to 60 of us in the audience were reminded of the significance of what our products went into and the importance of providing perfect quality. We also heard about the recent screw-ups that had caused much angst, drained resources, problems, delays and all things bad that can happen when a supplier falls short. Clutching in my hand our most recent Supplier Report Card – with a perfect 100% score for both quality and on-time delivery – I felt confident our little company was not only free of worry from the cited problems, but based on the data shared, most assuredly one of the highest ranked, best-regarded suppliers in attendance!

It didn’t take long for my bubble to burst.

During the one-on-one meetings with the buyer and quality representative, I asked that open-ended question that all too often you only ask when you expect to hear good things: “How are we doing?” I did not hear the anticipated “fantastic!” Instead I heard something like “fair,” at which point both the buyer and quality started lambasting me with a litany of “serious hiccups” my company had committed. None was major. In fact, both conceded our Report Card score was excellent. But, as it turned out, the little things that we did – or, more to the point, did not do – were irritating the jeepers out of the rank-and-file users of our product. While the users may not be the ones who place orders or perform incoming inspection, they can make enough noise to cause a supplier to be viewed by the buyer as a preferred source – or the company to avoid.

What was causing such angst? Many things, varied and simple! The range covered the appearance of the quotations sent in. After drilling down, I learned that appearance meant to this customer the level of detail – per part number – included on the quotation form. Certifications was another hot spot; could we “puhleeze” make our certificates of compliance look like the template our customer uses so it can be scanned into their system easier? Packaging was another bugaboo. This customer wants families of parts packaged in kit quantities to reduce handling and kitting time on the shop floor. The list went on. Mind you, not one of the areas discussed shows up on the Report Card that we proudly believed reflected our standing.

The good news was we do the major things right and now have a clear understanding of what we need to improve to separate preferred suppliers from the also-rans. Also, what this large, self-styled “inflexible” organization really values are suppliers flexible enough to help them by focusing on the little things. According to this company, those little things lead to significant costs in time lost and mistakes made. Or put another way, it’s the little things that really provide value-add.

While all too often we focus on big picture issues such as major technological trends, or put our emphasis on working solely with designers and engineers on new products, I believe that most companies may well value even greater the little things that we too often either take for granted or don’t think are important. While smaller companies may value technical resources more and view involvement in DfM as a value-add hot button, larger companies may need something very different.

Larger, more structured companies may find that attention to detail in conforming to their specific administrative needs, or flexibility in adjusting to their inventory and manufacturing process parameters – as simple or difficult as they may be – the differentiator that separates one supplier from another. In all cases, it requires customization of service quality, not just product quality. An excellent report card may not mean that your company is viewed as excellent. And while the product shipped may be flawless, it does not mean the buying experience is not flawed. While manufacturers tend to focus their resources – from quoting through shipping – on manufacturing-centric issues, maybe those same people need to focus as much on the mundane things like paperwork and packaging too.

Which gets back to one other “little thing”: asking questions of your customers. Unless you ask customers what you can do to improve, you will never know – until too late – if you are truly providing the value-add they seek. As basic as that may seem, too often we assume we know what customers want. Equally, too often we do not understand that there are many people in a customer’s organization who touch our products, and to whom we may need to pay attention to ensure customer satisfaction.

The little things can and do make a difference. From asking the questions through sweating the details, don’t forget the low-hanging fruit that can truly provide exceptional value-add to your customer as much as to your order book. 

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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