Client visits help to tear down barriers
When was the last time you went out of the office and visited a client? Or a remote facility? Or an operating department of your organization? When was the last time you saw a repair shop, or maintenance facility and spoke to the people who actually do the work to keep your organization running at peak performance? Whether it is a bus repair facility changing a transmission on a school bus or a groundskeeper’s building that maintains the physical plant, you need to get to them and speak to the craftspeople, administrators, support staff and the rest of your clients. Go visit them with the mindset of “My job is to get others the tools and services they need to do their jobs.”
It’s the best way to learn what the feet on the ground think of your service to them. Find out what you can do to make their jobs easier and faster. What about your service do they like, and what would they like to see improved?
Learn their language! You may order parts for them using a technical term or manufacturer’s description, but the craftspeople call it by a completely different slang name. Every trade has its own language. If you learn theirs, you can speak to them as an equal. It makes a big difference to clients when the buyer can speak their language. It shows that you are concerned about them and want to help. It adds to your credibility.
Find out what a differential, or an external spline or a pinion looks like and how they are used. Ask them to show you the parts and services that you purchase for them. Visit them wearing your jeans and work boots so you can follow them in their daily routines and see what they actually do for a living. If they are administrators of a program or supervisors of a service facility, listen to their phone calls and experience their successes and frustrations. Find out what their reporting structure is and what paperwork they need for their daily tasks. You aren’t the only one in your organization bound by procedures; they have them too.
What are their sole sources? See the actual parts and machinery, and you will have a better idea of what they work with and can help them. You get a lot of literature from distributors and manufacturers; perhaps you can send your clients information that will help them.
Once you have seen how they do their jobs, it’s time to turn the tables. Invite them into your office. Let them sit in your chair for a day, answer your phone, do research, check former contracts — and the other myriad priorities you deal with in a long day. Show them how you work, and explain how their requests become part of the flow of materials in your organization. Let your clients become part of your decision-making process. Invite them to your staff or client meetings. Show them how you interview prospective bidders. Let them fill their day with you.
At its most basic form, this strategy strips away the barriers to communication. Make it part of your customer service initiatives. Do it a few times a year, or when you have new clients or buyers on staff. After you try it a few times, look for ways to improve your methods. See if you can get funding for it as part of your yearly training cycle. It will go a long way to enabling each group to understand the inner workings of the other — and a great way to know people on a human level.
It’s all part of good customer service. And remember, customer service only works when it is of value to the customer.
Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO, is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org