Combs discusses how to make the lasting welfare of your company the principle by which all employees guide their internal and external exchanges.
By Terry Combs
I was recently standing in the shipping area of my company late one afternoon when a worldwide shipping-company driver arrived at our loading/unloading dock. I heard one of my employees inform the driver that she had called twice in the past five hours to request an early, additional pickup due to the large volume of outgoing packages stacked by the door. The driver responded, "Don't call us twice! We'll get here when we can get here!" That statement might have been true, but it certainly was not proper business etiquette. In fact, the driver's offensive response prompted us to use a different company the following day to ship several hundred boxes. I suspect that management at the rude driver's shipping company will have no idea why their shipping volume has dropped so suddenly and without warning. That is, not until its uninformed sales rep shows up on our doorstep and finds out why we no longer need his company's services. The situation made me wonder whether employees of any company actually operate with the best interests of their employer in mind. In the previous example, maybe the driver was tired, frustrated, or dealing with a personal problem. Or maybe he was just revealing his company's real policy toward its customers. Although it may not be the company's actual policy, maybe the "We'll get here when we can get here!" represents its real mode of operation. Unfortunately for the shipping company, this is the message that is being communicated to customers every day. Whatever the reason, the driver was clearly not acting with his company's best interest in mind. In fact, he cost the company several hundred dollars in shipping revenue that day and untold thousands more dollars in the future unless the relationship can be repaired. Do you have employees who are acting without your company's best interests in mind? Are they shedding a negative light on your company? Are your revenues suffering because of inappropriate employee actions that you are unaware of? Your attention and vigilance are crucial. Rarely will you encounter an employee who intentionally damages your company's reputation and profitability. A grudge or misguided response to an internal situation might cause an employee to maliciously sabotage business for your organization; however, damage that is unplanned, innocent, and generally unintentional is more common. Negligence, personal distraction, or other less vengeful motives are often the root for these kind of slip-ups. In the case of the irate driver, we discovered that the replacement shipping company we called had comparable rates. So it's clear that the employee in our shipping-department who made the call actually was operating with our company's best interests in mind. She was able to send a strong message to the original shipping vendor for its driver's cavalier attitude while finding an alternative that didn't cost us more. The role of the purchasing department Your company's best interests can be neglected in various scenarios. It isn't necessarily when an employee gives your company's face a black eye through interaction with customers and others outside your office. Sometimes, it's an innocent situation in which an employee's personal interests might outweigh their attentiveness to their task at hand. Personal interests sometimes blind employees to the company's missions and goals. Does your purchasing manager have a personal relationship with any of your vendors? This isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless the relationship clouds the perspective and reasonable decision making of your staff. I've encountered situations in which a purchasing manager manipulated purchase orders in favor of a particular vendor based on their relationship. That person acted without getting quotes from other vendors and most likely ignored a better price from a competitive vendor. Sadly, some purchasing managers base their decisions on a sales rep's smiling face instead of weighing benefits and costs. The person who sells boxes and tape to your facility may be single and attractive. And the person who sells plastisol and emulsion might take your purchasing manager out to lunch once or twice a month. But these reasons--and a multitude of others like these--can cause a purchasing manager to lose sight of the company's best interests. Perhaps the employees in your company responsible for purchasing feel that they're just too darned busy to be "smart shoppers." Instead, they become "order placers." Be mindful of this--their "too busy" attitude can have negative effects on numerous functions throughout your operation. People do get busy, and some find themselves overextended and overwhelmed. However, it is imperative that you emphasize that purchasing responsibilities include more than picking up the phone twice a week to place orders and get products and supplies to your receiving door on time. The job is to shop for products and supplies based on price and quality, and still get them in on time. By shopping around, you can save nickels, dimes, or even dollars on every order you place. Those savings add up as they flow directly to your company's bottom line. Sales vs. production Here's a news flash: Sales reps can sometimes get frustrated with the production department. In fact, sales reps can get frustrated with any department in your company. Conversely, other departments can get frustrated with the sales department. The production department often believes that sales reps are the ones with the attitude: "They're my customer, and I need it now. And by the way, it's a 12-color job, despite the fact that we have a ten-color press." (That actually happened to me!) In contrast, the sales department might feel the production department can be obstinate and difficult to work with. Production will claim it's because they feel misunderstood, mistreated, or misinformed. To add to the ill feelings, sales reps can cloud the issue of operating in the company's best interest when they communicate their frustrations to a customer or other departments. When they share misgivings about the company with customers, it can cost your business a client. When they pass on feelings of mistrust and frustration about the production department to other departments, it will not only get back to the production area but will result in anarchy on pressroom floor. At the same time, the production staff may be making life difficult for the sales rep(s) who seems to demand too much. This cycle of ill will and lack of focus on the company's best interest can damage your operation on many levels. What impression does your receptionist leave? I don't have to remind anyone how rude and frustrating it is when you call a business and hear, "Thank you for calling XYZ Printing. Can you hold?" Boy, I hate that! That reflexive finger acting like a striking snake on the hold button tells me that something or someone else is much more important than my call. I almost never mind waiting. But I do mind being put on hold without the chance to say anything and without hearing a complete sentence before I hear Muzak or a promotional message. Is customer service too generous? When a customer-service rep has to face a customer, even if it's over the phone, sometimes they feel more of a need to avoid conflict than to consider the best interests of your company. I've known customer-service reps who volunteer overly generous delivery dates or over-the-top compensation for errors. Sometimes, a customer-service rep will say anything a customer might want to hear to keep that person civil and non-confrontational on the phone. However, "giving away the store" is not in your company's best interest. Developing solutions for every department Once you've identified a problem with the way your employees represent your company, how can you remedy it? The solutions will be different for every company culture. You can start by employing some basic principles that will work in just about any business. In the purchasing department, make it a policy to obtain bids annually for regular purchases, such as ink, T-shirts, emulsions, and boxes, from three or more vendors. The people responsible for these purchases should show the vendors your purchase history, give a realistic projection of purchasing needs for the coming year, and demonstrate your company's willingness to commit to the agreed-upon quantity of goods. When bids are sought, the comparisons or quotes should be submitted to management as a spreadsheet report with notes attached that explain why the best-priced vendor may not have been selected. Some circumstances justify paying a higher price, such as when the vendor offers free shipping or discounts on combined purchases of more costly items. Keeping the sales and production departments on good terms is a little more challenging. In fact, managing this relationship can be a full-time endeavor. In order to keep the company's best interest in the minds of employees in both departments, you must avoid taking sides. As a manager, you must serve as the go-between in explaining the position and hurdles that each side faces. You have to make sure that both sides are aware of each other's concerns on every contested issue, and you must show some understanding for both sides. Before you leave today, remind your receptionist that she represents the face (and voice) of your company to most of your customers. You might say, "Please treat them politely and respectfully. If we have no time for anything else today, we have time for all our customers." To see if the receptionist took this directive to heart, place a call to your company through its toll-free line. Keep your customer-service department on track by giving them very clear working parameters. Make sure they understand that they must have management approval for any deal, discount, or promise that falls outside of these parameters. Clear guidelines will make life easier for all involved. Finally, make sure to keep your staff informed about your business, its goals, and its successes and failures. Being up front about what is going on with your organization can be the best way to help your staff keep the company's best interests in focus. I would wager that each employee in your printing business claims total allegiance and adherence to your company's cause. But in the reality of day-to-day operations, you must be vigilant and put fail-safe procedures in place to ensure your company's interests are kept at the top of everyone's priority list.
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