Working With Clients to Resolve Problem Issues

As I prepare this column, we are beginning to enjoy the winter months. While I'm not a person who takes pleasure in cold weather, I do enjoy the slight respite brought on by this traditionally slower sales season. Winter gives me the chance to take a little bit of a breather, stay a little closer to home and concentrate on organizing the year that lies before me.

One aspect that I take great care with is looking over accounts and/or areas where I may not be enjoying the success that I want. While I do this all year long, we are flying so fast most of the time that it's difficult to take the time to the recognize problem areas and to make the necessary course adjustments as we go.

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of my accounts are in great standing. Their sales are growing, their people give my products the attention that I desire, quality issues are relatively minor and payments are current.

And I am working hard to ensure that their months and years to come are even better.

Identifying Issues
As with any business, however, not every account is in this situation.

There are always a handful of accounts with various issues that need to be addressed.

All year long, I pay attention to these details, but this time of the year I can dedicate more effort to putting together game plans to truly improve the situation as opposed to just finding quick fixes. Problem accounts, problem jobs and problem times are chances for us to learn our weaknesses and, in turn, make these areas stronger.

When approaching such problems, I have a very deliberate process that I like to follow. My first step is quite basic: I take sheets of paper and write each "problem account" at the top. Below their names I list the issues in question and record my thoughts about each. I find it helpful to separate my thoughts on each one.

After I have given each some thought, I next look to work directly with the accounts. It's important for us to do this together. If we are adversarial, we will not reach a positive resolution to whatever the issues are.

First, I work to ascertain what the real problem is. Why are sales below expectations? What is the dissatisfaction based on? What's at the root of the payment issues? I like to jot down what I think is wrong and then meet face-to-face with my customer to discuss the situation.

Sometimes I can walk into the showroom and quickly find my answers. Other times it's much more subtle and requires a candid conversation. I like to keep an open mind because there can be factors that I am not aware of. If both parties have open minds in trying to uncover the true issue, we are more likely to resolve it.

A point that I like to stress is that none of us should be there to assign blame. We are looking for the obstacles and how to overcome them. A strength that I believe our firm and the companies that we represent have is that we are willing to keep our eyes open to the fact that the problems are not necessarily the fault of the account. We may have our part in it, too, and we are willing to recognize and resolve that. It is essential that my customers also believe the same. We must not get caught up in blame but rather be looking forward to what we can accomplish to benefit each other.

Objectives and Resolutions
Next on my agenda is to set objectives. Before finding a course to resolution, I like to look ahead and see where I want our business relationship to be down the road. Where do I think our sales will be? Do I see all of us being able to continue working together successfully? These are important questions.

I even ask my customer to look at the issues before us and to let me honestly know where they see our business relationship in the future. If we agree on future objectives, it is much easier to find a resolution. If we don't, then we may be looking for a mutually agreeable way to end our business relationship. While I do not like to do this, it does happen. It can actually be beneficial to both parties to get a new start in the market. If it comes to this, I want to end it in a friendly manner and stress that, in the future, we may find new and profitable dealings again. Never slam doors shut.

The third item on my agenda is what I call "the move forward." After we have agreed on the problem and on what we want to accomplish, we can create a game plan to move forward. The three words that I keep in mind when creating this are: reasonable, realistic and flexible. We need a reasonable solution a solution that is fair to everybody and can leave us all feeling as if it was settled in the best way possible. If the resolution benefits one side too much, the other party will always feel slighted. All parties have to be able to start the next day fresh with confidence in the relationship.

Besides being reasonable, we have to be realistic. We cannot set up goals or agree on solutions that are unattainable. Too often, promises are made that are impossible to keep. We need to be realistic in what we can expect from each other.

I certainly will not promise perfection from my end. I realize that no matter how good the intentions and how diligent the efforts, we all make mistakes. If we promise perfection, we are dooming this from the start.

Beyond reasonableness and realism, flexibility is key. I once watched a U.S. General speak about battle plans and success. I remember him saying that the plan is always perfect before the battle, but after the battle begins, a good leader understands that there has to be a certain amount of flexibility allowed to meet the objectives. As long as we are all moving toward our agreed objectives, we need to be willing to be flexible enough to maneuver around unforeseen land mines.

The above steps are the approach that I like to follow. I also encourage one more important item, honesty. Tell your rep and the manufacturer the truth about the situation. We respect truthfulness and will work hard to find a reasonable, realistic and flexible way to help. To me, the most important part of the equation is truthfulness. Trust us and help us find a way to work out of the predicament.

Well, I have my list, I have my ideas, I have my agenda and I am ready to meet with my customers and work together to resolve the issues. Next, I am going to start working on beating this winter weather.

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This article originally appeared in Kitchen and Bath Design News 2/2005

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