I’ve been in the welding and gas business for more than 50 years. I truly thought I had seen it all. But this past year and a half has truly been both the best of times and the worst of times in this industry. And, I promise, when I include the best of times in that sentence, I’m not going crazy! But before I get into how it has been the best of times, I think we can all agree that the past year and a half has been pretty bad.
We all went through some tough times. But those who know me best know that I don’t like to dwell on the negatives. I like to concentrate on the positives and look around the corner to see that we’re headed to bluer skies. Now that we’ve seemingly moved beyond the worst that COVID has to offer and begun to return to a sense of normalcy, it’s time to start rebuilding our relationships. If you’ve read my previous articles, you know that I value strong relationships above just about anything. And you also know that there is a huge difference between customer service and customer relations.
Customers can get good customer service just about anywhere. But they buy from and return to people they have relationships with. And when COVID shut a huge part of our world down, those relationships suffered. But the good news is that even if our relationships with our customers and prospects changed, so did our competitors’. And now we have the opportunity to go out and build those relationships back stronger than they ever were before. Here are a few simple but effective tips to build new relationships and deepen existing ones.
When we say customers, we tend to focus on our outside customers. But I believe our employees are our internal customers. And, due to work from home orders or forced social distancing, we need to make sure we rebuild our relationships with our internal customers as well.
At the height of the pandemic, many “non-essential” employees were forced to work from home, spending all day behind the computer desk or on the phone. But, as we know, our industry is an essential industry, which meant that even if some of our people couldn’t be in the office, our operations had to continue to function business as usual. Which means that while we as salespeople were tucked behind our computers in our underwear all day (don’t pretend you didn’t have days like that!), our drivers, our pumpers and our counter people continued to show up day after day to make things happen.
We were still working hard, but these frontline employees were making things happen and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Make sure they know how much you noticed and appreciated their effort. Even if it’s a $25 gift card to Walmart. Just go up to them and say, “It’s been a tough year and a half, and I know that you were here every day, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you guys doing the things that made a difference. Thank you.” You really need to go out of your way to thank these people.
And particularly those of you who are in outside sales. Most people in the organization aspire to be in outside sales and look at the outside salespeople as leaders in the company. You get to drive a company car, you wear nice clothes, you’ve got an expense account. So, as a leader, those little things that you do make a huge difference. And a gesture of gratitude will be noticed and will be remembered. People want to know that they’re appreciated and valued. And if they don’t feel appreciated and valued, I promise you, they’ll remember that too.
It’s important to take care of our internal customers and ensure that morale remains high, especially coming out of a pretty dark time. But what about those customers who pay the bills? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can share some things that I’ve seen work well in my half century in this “bidness.”
Back 30 or 40 years ago, Welders Supply had 13 competitors within a six-mile radius of where we were in Dallas. And the reason people bought from us is not because our equipment was any better. We all had top of the line Lincoln, Hobart and Miller products. Our oxygen was the same. They bought from us because we had relationships with those customers. And that’s why we need to concentrate on trying to rebuild that relationship.
We used to have safety meetings on a regular basis, both internal and with some of our customers. Now, I would never tell you to go around the purchasing manager, but in this case, I would talk to the safety director at your customer’s company and ask if they hold regular safety meetings. And I would say, “As part of our way of saying thank you, we would like to come in at one of your safety meetings and bring our safety people in for 15-20 minutes and do a refresher on the basics of safety procedures of welding and cutting.” Anything like that. Eye protection. Hearing protection. Just anything that you can do to go in and differentiate yourself from your competitor. They all have these meetings and every safety director I’ve ever met is always looking for somebody to come in to do a safety meeting with them. It’s a great way to ease yourself back in there.
When I was at Welders, we had a huge barbeque that I would take around to our customers’ site every so often. And when we wanted to show a customer just how much we appreciated them, I would bring the barbeque to their shop, and I would cook up burgers and hot dogs for all of their people. Just as a way of saying thank you. And you could tell that resonated with them, seeing the president of the company come out and make lunch for 30 or 40 people. It’s a way that you can show your appreciation for the people who really made it happen during the pandemic and it’s also kind of a way of returning to normalcy. What’s more normal than gathering together for burgers and dogs?
But maybe you don’t have a barbeque like we did. Well, in that case, get with the powers that be and bring pizza for the people in the shop. Or sandwiches. And it may cost you a couple of hundred dollars, but that’s a couple of hundred dollars that I promise you will be well spent.
The last thing I would suggest might be the easiest. We’re all proud of our facilities. We keep them looking good and we’re all in compliance with all of the alphabet soup agencies. So, bring in your customers for a plant tour or an open house. Roll out the red carpet for them and show them around. Make them feel like VIPs. We got away from doing things that we did for years and years. And our world got turned upside down during COVID. And I would like to think that we’re going to do some of the little things that would make a difference to get us all back on the same track again.
Those are three very simple things I would suggest. It’s not brain surgery. It’s things that you can do very easily that will make a difference that will hopefully start building those relationships back to what we had prior to COVID.
Get Off the Merry Go Round
Finally, I said at the beginning of this article that the last year and a half has also had some of the best of times. And when you read that, I bet you thought I had lost it. But think about your life before COVID. I bet you were running around doing a thousand different things and you felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day to get them all done. We all get so wrapped up in what I call the Merry Go Round of life. And then COVID hit, and the merry go round didn’t slow down. It stopped. The good news about the merry go round stopping is that it forced us to really reevaluate what we were doing with our lives. Both personally and professionally. I don’t know how many of you had relatives in nursing homes or friends that had parents in nursing homes. Do you remember how you felt when you couldn’t go see grandma? You couldn’t see your best friend. All you could do was go up to the window and put your hand on the window. That’s a terrible way to live your life. I don’t want to go back to those times again.
So, I would ask our readers today, now that we’re coming out of COVID, are you going to go back to your old ways of doing things? Where you were too busy to go to the nursing home or to your kid’s baseball games? You were too busy to go to the Boy Scout meeting? Don’t do that. Please, take the time to do the little things that make a difference. We had what I call a mulligan. A do-over. I think we need to really examine what we were doing prior to COVID and let’s try to do everything that we can to make sure that we don’t get so busy in our life that we forget about doing the little things that make a difference.
2020 was a year to remember. We have a chance to not wipe 2020 and 2021 from our memory, because I think we learn from our mistakes and our history, but I want to wipe out as much of that negative as we can and I want us to really concentrate on making sure that what we have left of 2021 and what we’re going to be looking forward to in 2022 are the best years that we’ve ever had in this thing called the welding and gas bidness. Will you do your part to make sure that that happens?