By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
I’d been using the same business forms printer for seventeen years—or what was essentially the same one. Our time together bridged many changes. For me, it transcended two places of employment, with different office locations; on their part, it spanned three ownerships, a time of expansion and contraction, three name changes, and a merger. We stayed together through it all—until they messed things up.
I selected this printer because they were near my office, had competitive pricing, and were easy to work with. These are wise reasons: convenience, price, and service. So begins my story.
What struck me was their collective friendliness. It didn’t matter who I talked with, whether it was on the phone or in person, they were always friendly. The next step beyond friendliness is an acquaintance and finally relationship. I knew the staff and the owner—who never felt it condescending to wait on me. We had a relationship. With relationship comes understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. Let me explain.
Although they exemplified the adage to “under promise and over deliver” there were occasions when things didn’t go as expected. Sometimes this was my fault, sometimes theirs, but regardless we worked through these glitches for the common good of our long-term relationship. I understood they were in business to make money, that ultimately I needed to be a profitable account; likewise, they understood I needed their product to be in an acceptable form. If we didn’t have a relationship, instead of seeking our mutual benefit, we would have sought our individual self-interest; we would have become adversarial.
Similarly, relationship begets tolerance. Tolerance overlooks the small stuff, the things that don’t really matter. If they made a mistake that didn’t affect its essential utility, tolerance accepted the error. However, if a problem occurred that was integral to its function, then reprinting was in order. Our relationship prompted their desire to reprint, while tolerance gave me the desire to allow for extra time. Last, is the relational benefit of forgiveness. If they missed a deadline, I wanted to forgive them because of our relationship. If I needed to move up a routine project to a rush job or needed to change something in mid-production, they chose to be accommodating and tolerant of my lack of planning.
One day I walked into their shop. In the time that it took me to stride from the door to the counter, three people stopped their work, glanced up, and greeted me by name. They were glad to see me and I was happy to be there. Bob approached me. “We’re just like Cheers,” he beamed, “We’re the printer, where everybody knows your name!” He was right; they knew my name, making me feel welcomed and appreciated.
Bob and I got to know each other over the years. Our kids were both in marching band at their respective schools, giving us a commonality apart from business. Although I’m not a hunter, I enjoyed hearing of his adventures in the woods. Likewise, he heard about my business trips, weekend plans, and home improvement projects. When Bob bought into the business, he was quick to share his news with me; now we had another area of connection.
I changed jobs and Bob’s downtown shop was no longer convenient for me, but I kept going anyway. When he relocated to manage a satellite store, I followed him there, glad that it was closer for me. Later, when a downturn in the economy required the closure of his location, my loyalty followed him to a third. Though not as convenient, the extra drive was worth it to see my friend Bob.
Then they merged with another company. This resulted in yet another name change and a subsequent closing of Bob’s satellite office. Later, needing to have some envelopes printed, I returned to their original location. I hoped to find Bob there and the other people I’d known for so long. I was dismayed to see no one I knew and no one who knew me. They didn’t understand my history with them that spanned decades and they made no effort to be friendly or to get to know me. To them, I represented an order, not a relationship; I was an invoice, not a friend.
It’s not that these things are relevant to printing envelopes, but they are a pleasant bonus. Having a personal connection with my printer doesn’t improve the quality of the final product. In a hard-core business sense, these things don’t matter. Or do they?
When I picked up my order, I was shocked at the bill. Their rates had gone up a lot, but foolishly I hadn’t checked. I gave the new regime the trust earned by the old one, paying the price – quite literally – for my lapse. When I began using the envelopes, I was again distressed. There were problems with two of the first twenty. A 10 percent error rate is not the quality that I expected or paid for. Although the ratio has improved as I worked through the box, that initial impression stuck with me. In the old days, I would have called up Bob and we would have worked something out, but now I didn’t know who to contact. There was no relationship anymore, so there was no real reason to maintain it. Mentally, I was already searching for another printer.
What I learned is that we need to get personal with those we do business with; build relationships. Then when an expectation is missed, you can work together to develop a mutually beneficial solution. If a minor problem occurs, tolerance will win out and forgiveness can take place. If the business moves, the name changes, or new owners show up, it’s the personal relationships that holds customers close and keeps them from seeking out the competition.
So get personal; it’s good business.