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Letter from Ed: Talk to Me!
One of the things that frustrates me the most in today’s world of ever increasing rapid communication is the lack of direct communication.
By Edward C. Brindley
Date Posted: 12/1/2010
One of the things that frustrates me the most in today’s world of ever increasing rapid communication is the lack of direct communication. People send emails and text messages instead of communicating directly with each other. A lot can be lost in translation when you don’t have face-to-face interaction. You get invaluable feedback by simply visiting clients and seeing their operations, including how they use your products and services.
As I talk with pallet people today, one thing is clear. You need to be talking to your customers. They are receiving information about pallets and wood products from a wide variety of sources including competitors, the Internet, news reports, truck drivers, brokers, etc. And the only way you know for sure that they are getting your message is to deliver it to them yourself. The advent of the Internet has made it easy for a few news stories by misguided reporters to put an entire industry in a tailspin. The recent drug recalls and the media fiasco about tainted pallets comes to mind.
You need your customers to look to you as a valuable source of information before the next “crisis” arises. That way, when something comes up, you are the first person they call and the voice they most respect.
Looking back to my early days of working with pallet people (the late 1970s and the 1980s), I was surprised how often they did not seem to know very much about the pallet using habits of their customers. One of the most important positive effects of the Pallet Design System (PDS) was probably an increase in the communication between pallet suppliers and their customers. Helping them design pallets required getting more involved with their shipping and storing requirements. It meant getting to know them and their real needs.
Everything changes so quickly now. An issue that can be an industry crisis today may not have even been on the radar screen a short time ago. Lawsuits, product recalls, product damage, mold issues! Pallet companies are all too aware of these problems. But your customers may not be until an issue arises with one of their loads. By knowing the places your customers ship palletized product, typical loads, modes of transportation utilized, demands of their customers, etc. you can work to eradicate problems before they ever happen.
Unfortunately, most pallet users still look at a wooden pallet and don’t understand all the complexities that can arise from making the wrong decisions. People tend to think that a pallet is a pallet is a pallet. Those in the industry know that nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the best ways to earn the respect of a customer is to be a knowledgeable source of information tailored to their unique needs. Yet, you won’t really know their needs until you get to know their business. This involves carefully observing customer action, recording that information and utilizing it to improve your products and services.
A lot of business gurus talk about listening to your customer. This can be difficult to do for a number of reasons.
First, customers may tell you one thing, when the opposite is really true. They may not know what they really want. And they may not be willing to make the necessary changes to take advantage of whatever new things you do. Second, your customers don’t know your products or where problems can arise like you do. All you can do is really see how your customers use your products to identify potential problem areas. And you want to be careful scaring customers about potential problems that may never ever be a problem for them. It can be a difficult balance between not enough communication and too much.
Many customers lack creativity in explaining their real needs to you. They may only want a better version of what they already have when they would jump all over an opportunity to use an innovative product or service. I am thinking about these issues as the wooden pallet industry faces the Costco challenge. A group of industry leaders is working to come up with an industry cooperative pool called PIMS. See the article on page 20.
Another challenge when it comes to listening to customers is knowing which customers should you really listen to the most. Your largest customers may want merely lower prices while others are more on the fringe and would welcome innovative products that could really differentiate your company. Do you only listen to those customers who complain the loudest? Maybe they are not truly indicative of what most of the market really wants. You have to be aware that your customers are also talking to your competition. If you only act on customer feedback without innovating through your own experience, you may become too much like a competitor, eliminating the ability to set you apart.
Customers love it when you surprise them (as long as it is a good surprise). The challenge is that they can’t tell you what to do to surprise them. Then, it wouldn’t be a surprise. You have to understand your customer enough to know what they want without them telling you. Instead of just listening to your customer, you have to learn to think like your customer combined with your knowledge of unforeseen problems that they may not detect.
Truly innovative companies with high levels of customer service are adept at seeing under the surface of what customers really want even though they may not realize it now. This level of responsiveness requires a wide variety of expertise to achieve. That is where our publications and services among other resources can be invaluable. We regularly spend hours each week helping readers and advertisers solve their problems. We are more than just a publishing company. We also provide tons of resources and information that can help you achieve your goals.
I believe one of the greatest resources out there is the Pallet Profile Weekly and the Recycle Record, our two market reports designed to serve the interest of pallet companies and low-grade lumber suppliers. Besides regular coverage of the markets and news, we publish special reports that are designed to educate customers on key issues. These reports are used by many pallet companies to provide third-party advice and guidance.
We are currently working on a report designed to help pallet users navigate the Costco block pallet concern. It also will explore the benefits and pitfalls of pallet rental. This report will be available in early December. If you want resources like these, you need to call 800-805-0263 to subscribe today.
There are two other major sources of information that offer significant benefits to the U.S. industry. A great source for technical information about wooden pallet performance, wood species, and unit load performance is the Sardo Pallet Lab or Center for Unit Load Design at Virginia Tech. Ralph Rupert, who runs the Center, can be reached at 540/231-7106.
Of course, the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (703/519-6104) is an established resource. Its Pallet Design System has become one of the most valuable tools for many pallet companies.
With a number of resources at your disposal, you are not alone in answering the challenges arising in the industry today. But it all starts with listening to the customer. Then you have to act on that information and be willing to take the next step to innovate the future.