Thursday, December 17, 2009

Innovating During A Tough Economy

What can a company or independent sales rep do during a tough economy to help build customer loyalty, or to stand apart from the pack to help bring in more new business via reputation or other word-of-mouth means?

When manufacturing new products can be too dicey in uncertain times, what else is there to do?

Well, it may surprise many, but what some company sells or what some rep may offer may not be as important to an account as how. This is where service comes into play.
We’re fortunate to live in an age when technology has made certain aspects of service easier to handle and to introduce innovations.

Many companies may still use the USPS mindset when it comes to invoicing their shipments. The typical scenario that’s worked for years is this:

· Purchase order comes into the company, they enter and pull/pick the order
· An invoice is generated which shows what’s on the order, how much each item costs, and what the total is including freight costs and any other fees or credits. This will be the bill of sale, so to speak. It gets mailed to the account’s bookkeeping department, where the accounts payable crew sets it up for payment.
· A non-priced version of the invoice is thrown into the box with the goods to use as a packing slip.

Notice your mailbox lately? Read about how much in the red the USPS continues to be? USPS solutions are passe. Several companies of mine have started using a more innovative, Fed-Ex or UPS inspired approach:

· Purchase order comes in as above, and invoice is generated as above, however,
· Invoice gets emailed to the account, along with tracking information, as the product leaves the dock
· If the customer still wants one, a copy of invoice is mailed as before.
· Packing slip is included, but chances are the account will find the previously emailed invoice of more use since all the pricing info can be derived from that document.

Now, which method would you prefer? If you said the first, you are worse off than the professor that gave the future founder of Fed Ex a failing grade when he presented the Fed Ex business model as a term paper in a business course. That professor was at least a product of his times--the '70s. Obviously the second choice is more forward-thinking.

And the neat thing is: this is a small investment that will reap big dividends in customer loyalty. Assuming you’d prefer the second of the two methods above, we’d have to assume everyone else (customers included) would as well! So this is innovation that is less chancy than introducing, or even testing, a new product line.

A business should always look for ways to innovate. Wasn’t it Peter Drucker that said, “Marketing and Innovation are the lifeblood of any company? Everything else is an expense?” And Lee Iacocca helped turn Chrysler around in the ‘80s with the idea that “If you’re not #1 in your business, you have to innovate”. One would add: If you are #1 and you want to stay there, you must keep innovating.

This is just one inexpensive way a company can innovate. How about others? How about those means a rep can also use to innovate?

· Conference calls are becoming far more popular than in years past and there are companies out there like that offer free or very reasonably- priced solutions to this activity.
· Web conferences are another solution offered by technology. or allow far flung parties to view presentations on the host’s computer—without traveling, spending money renting a facility, saving time and expense, but serving customer’s needs in the way these methods can inform.
· Here’s one that sounds contradictory as it means an out-of-pocket solution for a rep, but could save time and keep a customer happy over the long run. If there is any sort of shortage/damage/credit issue that does not get resolved for some reason between a customer and an account, the rep simply writes a personal check and sends it to the account. Incidents like this may not involve too much, and they should not for the rep’s sake! But you know the situation: two or three widgets were left out of the order or arrived broken for the fourth time in the past year. These incidents are an annoyance that gum up the works at the account’s warehouse or store. Rep asks who to send a check to in order to even out the bill…and if the account gives him/her a contact name, the rep does so. This is good PR, it solves the problem, and the rep can go back to the repeat offending vendor and tell them to send any sort of credit to the rep himself instead of the company. Believe me, incidents like this rarely happen again because of the lesson learned: justice delayed is justice denied.

When times get better these types of service issues will stand out and cement loyalty. That will mean more consistent business when it counts!