Making tough decisions

Times were difficult then. We had just started the business. Like many new companies, we had done our homework, put together our plan, and then discovered that the assumptions were all wrong. We were experiencing steady growth, but it just wasn’t enough. We needed every customer that we could get.

He talked a good game. A consultant, he did a lot of public speaking. He needed the usual collateral material, plus stuff for his presentations and occasional postcards and mailers. His message was positive attitude, optimism, and “can do.” He impressed with the not quite casual dropping of familiar names. Large volumes were not exactly promised, but he gave a distinct impression that his business was substantial. When he asked about printing, the words he used were “cost effective, economical, and prompt turnaround.”

We soon found out that he meant cheap and immediate. Our level of service wasn’t sufficient. Pressure was a part of his business style. He expected everything to be dropped for his needs the minute he walked into the shop. Production scheduling was out the window. Design and changes were frequently time consuming, but he didn’t want to pay for it. He was such a great customer that he should get a better deal . . . the price was always too high, and he was not shy about expressing his consternation.

The volumes never materialized. There were a few good orders, but lots more small jobs that disrupted production and cost much more than the revenue they produced. We struggled along for a year or so before he left for greener pastures. I don’t recall what the final straw was, but I suspect it was price. When a local competitor went belly up in 2003, I noticed some of his materials in the shop during the liquidation auction.

I recognized his voice when he called last week. He was shopping. I was cordial. I asked why he was calling us again. Another printer had gone out of business, he responded. He wanted some postcards, not expensive color but black and white . . . economical. Could we do them for him?

“Possibly,” I said.

He recognized the hesitance in my voice. To his credit, he asked the direct question. I answered honestly. He told me to “have a blessed day,” as the conversation ended. I could hear the edge in his voice.

Times are difficult now. It’s been a slow start to the year and our largest customer is reorganizing. We need every new customer we can get. It was tempting to take this one on again with the hopes that things would be different this time. We’re actually pretty good at meeting the “special needs” of our customers.

Then I remembered again and thought about all of the good relationships that we have with our customers. They are relationships based on clear and open communications, honesty, and mutual understanding. We value our customers’ businesses and try to add value with the products we provide them. I think they place a value on our services and the quality of our relationships. I think that they’d be unhappy if we  didn’t charge enough to stay in business.

Tough decision.

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