Don’t lose customers due to ‘procedures’

June 14, 2010
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Every once in a while you get an opportunity to see business done in a way that is almost comical. I recently purchased an orchard sprayer. It led to a comedy of errors that are only funny because my livelihood does not depend on agricultural production.

First I need to emphasize the importance of timeliness in spraying fruit trees, bushes and vines. Black rot, cedar apple rust, apple maggots and coddling moths must be sprayed in proper sequence to prevent the destruction of your fruit. In farming you must do things at the time it is required and no other time will do. Diseases and insects have their natural season and no matter your excuse they do what they do.

My first spraying needed to be in April. This is the spray to prevent black rot and cedar apple rust. You must get them before they begin to multiply. So I filled my brand-new sprayer with the sulfur and lime to spray my grapes and antique apples which are very vulnerable to the two aforementioned fungus. As soon as I started the sprayer it quit. I checked all the required problem solvers in the manual then called the company. The technician immediately knew what the problem was. He told me they would send me a new part as soon as they had them in stock. Obviously the next question is when will that be? He didn't know. They were backordered.

I got part of the spraying done by using a two-gallon hand-pumped sprayer. I am 67 and due to tax season not in the best physical condition. This was not a good idea but was the only solution I had. There are 160 grapevines and several large hundred-year-old apple trees that I did spray. I realize they're going to find me face down on my sprayer in the orchard. It’s probably a better place to die than in the office but still not a desired result. So I went to plan B.

A technician at the sprayer manufacturer informed me that I could circumvent the bad fuse by using a paperclip to go around the circuit breaker. So that's what I did. I put a paperclip in as I was instructed by him. The pump came on I turned and found the pump on fire. I was not surprised. I'm not an electrician but I do know that if the circuit breaker breaks, that's an indication that something larger is wrong. I assumed the technician at the manufacturer knew more than I did about their product. In most cases I would still make that assumption but in this case I was wrong.

Originally they told me to return my sprayer and they would replace it with a new one. After agreeing I called back and asked them to just send me the part that doesn't work. I would take the defective part off and put the new part on. They agreed that was a good idea. The problem was that they were out of that part. So I suggested they take that part off another sprayer they had in stock. That was against the company policy. So this company would send me a whole new sprayer but not just a part of one. What difference does that make if you replace the whole unit which is large or a part off of it that is small? Either way you have one less sprayer in stock.

In the end they have sent me a new motor and pump without the tank. I now have to take the burned pump off the tank and put the new pump on. The sprayer is in Cheboygan. The replacement pump is in Grand Rapids. I will not know until I take the new pump to Cheboygan whether or not it will work because the part numbers on the two pumps are different. If the new pump is not the right one for the sprayer it will take me another couple weeks to remedy the problem. Meanwhile black rot, cedar apple rust and apple maggots reign supreme.

Whenever I'm faced with a situation that is so ridiculous I question whether I do some of the same things in my business. Purchasing at the sprayer manufacturing must have gotten some really cheap parts. That was their first mistake. Somebody probably got a bonus in purchasing for such a good deal. The second mistake was not thinking about a solution. Company policy can be counterproductive. In the very beginning all I needed was the backordered part. They should have taken one from wherever they could within the system. Were my livelihood dependent on my crop production I would have been far angrier. This is just a nuisance. But losing a year’s hard work with a failed crop to a cost-cutting purchasing agent and technical support people who simply didn't seem to know what they were doing is simply not acceptable.

Obviously, I'll never buy a product from this company again. But I learned a lot from the experience. Keeping the customer is paramount particularly if it was your error that caused the problem. We are all human and make mistakes. We need to learn from our mistakes. We can also learn from other people's mistakes. Have you cut costs to the point where the product suffers? If you have, then correct the situation. If the situation arises due to someone else's error be sure you take into account the damage being done to the end-user.

Don't get caught up in procedures. If you know what you need to do to rectify the situation then correct it as soon as possible. If I had a functional sprayer two weeks after the problem manifested itself I would have been happy. I recognize that mistakes happen. What left me unwilling to buy from this company again was its inability or unwillingness to see the urgency of my situation. Review your company policies and attitudes to see that you don't lose customers due to the same mistakes my sprayer supplier made.

Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Business Association and the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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