As a sales rep who sells into schools, I am privileged to work with a lot of great teachers and school administrators. Most of them are truly dedicated professionals, and pretty easy to get along with. Having gone through extensive product training at my “new” job almost 2 years ago (I sell over 400 products with tons of variations), I was very grateful, during the first few months of my job, to be working with educators, because they all seemed to understand when I was forced to say, “gosh, I’m new to this job and I don’t know the answer to that question. Do you mind if I find the answer and call you back in a little bit?” (Teachers understand the learning process. No one ever said, “no, you dummy.”) As customers, teachers are generally kind, patient, good learners, good listeners, analytical thinkers, and good question-askers. I like working with them and helping them do their jobs better when they buy my products.
Every now and then I work with a customer who makes the list of Unpleasant People Who I Hope Never Call Again and Who I Don’t Care if I Ever Sell Anything To.
That happened today.
I’m not going to tell the whole story simply to preserve the customer’s anonymity, but following are the highlights. I have been working with various staff members at this particular institution since May (it is now September). They would be a new (albeit small) account for my company. Our communications have all occurred via phone and email, and have gone something like this:
May 5: An instructor calls me & asks Q’s about my products, services, etc. I answer them & ask some back. She shares info & we visit some more. I offer to email quotation & product information. She says yes. I do.
May 10: I call to follow up. Leave voicemail. No response.
June 10: I call to follow up. Leave voicemail. No response.
July 10: I call to follow up one last time and prepare to label this one as “dead.” However, when the phone rings, another teacher in the department takes the call and says, oh yes, we are still interested! But can you send me a price on these other items, too? We really need this stuff and I think we will be ordering for the beginning of the school year. I email quote.
July 15: I call to follow up. Leave voicemail. No response.
July 20: I call to follow up. I talk to the original teacher again. She says, we may be able to order, but I don’t know. I tell her no problem, and I reassure her that our lead time is only about 2-3 weeks on these products, so she still has time to order for when school starts after Labor Day.
August 15: I call and get an administrator. She says, oh, no, we will not be placing an order, we have no money for equipment like this. But send us a catalog. No problem, I understand lack of funding, so I send a catalog with a brief “hope to work with you again sometime” note and my card.
TODAY (September 8), Third Day of School with students, 3:10 PM: Administrator calls me and here is the conversation:
Customer: I’m going to be faxing you a Purchase Order and my custodian will be at your facility to pick up the order tomorrow at 9:00 AM.
Me: Oh! Great! Except I do not have these products in stock. Can you wait 2-3 weeks? I’ll do everything I can to rush the order for you.
Customer: But my custodian will be there tomorrow to pick them up. He can’t come any other time. School started on Tuesday and we are busy.
Me: Gosh, I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to have an order ready by tomorrow.
Customer: Well, how many of the 40 (name my product) CAN you have ready by tomorrow?
Me: (I’ll admit, I gulp a bit here. I don’t seem to be getting my message across.) To be forthright with you, we probably have dozens of orders in front of yours and it is also our busy season. That is why we have a 2-week leadtime, because we are shipping units as quickly as we can make them. So I really can’t have any ready for tomorrow, but I would be glad to make a couple of calls on your behalf here, and see if I can cut down that lead time by rushing your order through and getting the products ready within a week or so. Would that help? Then you would have them by the end of next week, instead of the end of September.
Customer: But school has already started and our (name her program) class is starting next Monday. So we need to pick them up tomorrow.
What I wanted to say was this:
1) How long have you known that school was going to start on September 6?
2) How long have you known that you were going to be offering a (name her program) class this fall? Because your teachers were preparing for this program way back in May and June, and they requested the products then.
3) Look, I’m trying to help you here. I’m offering to expedite your order when there is NO HOPE of getting product ready for you overnight.
4) Which other customers who are also waiting for this product, would you like me to call and ask if I can place your order in front of theirs, since you did not plan ahead and now you have a self-inflicted emergency on your hands? (Excuse the awkward sentence. It’s a frustrating situation. There’s not a graceful way to say it!)
5) Why should your lack of preparation, despite my best efforts to help you, constitute an emergency on my part?!
–Reader, I said none of these things. I’m a professional and I remained calm and tried to be understanding. Look, we’ve all dropped the ball from time to time, at work, at home, with our family and friends. I really do understand how things fail to be ordered in time for the school year. It happens all the time and we just work with our customers to rush things up when they are desperate. We all do the best we can. So I said to her:
I am really grateful for your business, but I will simply not be able to have the order ready by tomorrow. Considering the circumstances, do you still want to place an order and I will do what I can to expedite it, or do you want to think about it and get back to me tomorrow?
In the back of my mind, I know that yes, there are times when the company I work for CAN perform miracles. I’ve asked for them before and even been granted a couple. For instance, a shipping supervisor once met a customer at the plant over the weekend (when we were closed) to arrange for an order to get onto a truck correctly.
Once we made a pretty complicated product with a normal lead time of 4 weeks, in 2 days, because the customer had done a ton of business with us through the years and we had botched a recent order that he (justifiably) complained about. Frankly, we owed him a little extra sweat and blood.
Just a few weeks ago, our night shift guys worked extra hours to finish a last-minute order for one of my customers (only a few miles down the road from the customer from today!) who, because of his lack of preparation, didn’t order on time, either. In this case, the customer called me and said, “Look, I screwed up. I’m getting this order in way too late. Can you help me? I’d really appreciate it.” His honesty and good manners made me go to bat for him with my boss and our production folks. We all wanted to help him because of the way he approached it. When he got his order earlier than he’d expected, he looked like a hero to his administrators.
So anyway, yes, there are times when we perform miracles. Unapologetically rude, demanding and unreasonable customers are NOT the ones I go the extra mile for. In this business, I work with too many nice people to have to waste much time trying to accommodate the crazy ones. Not to mention, I frankly don’t get paid nearly enough to beg my colleagues for emergency rush jobs for customers who don’t at least act appreciative of my trying to help them.
Bottom line, maybe it makes me a second-rate sales rep, but I am more than happy to walk many extra miles for the people who have social skills, who are nice to work with, and who are willing to compromise when they know they are requesting the impossible.
For the others, I’m just not.