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Stand out from the crowd

Customers will remember you for fulfilling on your promises

By Malcolm Mills

Malcolm Mills

A myriad of quotations exist about being different. Look them up, everyone's doing it. Talk about your paradox.

But it's true. And the one I like best is from Meredith West. She says it in the simplest format. "If you want to stand out, don't be different; be outstanding."

Most people believe that if they stand out, this automatically makes them outstanding. They totally lack the wisdom of Meredith.

Walk down the street, turn on the television; attend a music concert; watch the Media Awards and then, if you're really, really brave, sneak a quick look at your own teenager. There's something of a movement – might I even suggest something of an obsession – with people to be different, to be unique, march to a really different drum, get out of the box, stand out in the crowd and to shock at any cost.

What's wrong with being different, you ask? The answer of course is nothing, with this proviso. There's no negative connotation with being different, providing there is a positive aspect flowing to or from the action, and providing it is socially acceptable and legally responsible.

Sporting a one-of-a-kind cool hat can be useful in a number of ways. It can cool you down or warm you up. It can make you feel good, make you feel confident. It can even keep the rain off.

Wearing dark glasses in a mall, the office or a classroom really just makes you look like an individual with a problem, low self-esteem being the least of them. You're different but who cares? If you come across as being weird, who wants to associate with you?

Now carry this into the business environment, let's say sales, for instance.
The art of sales is a craft requiring intelligence, common sense and trust, for starters. Ultimately a good sales rep thinks first of serving the needs of the customer while making a reasonable profit. No moon walk required.

Today, tremendous lengths are being taken to achieve individuality in business. We want to turn heads. Many distributors, for instance, because they carry the same products as hundreds of others, attempt to stand out by touting "added value" that they profess to possess which others do not.

Again, there's nothing wrong with the concept. In fact, as this magazine often illustrates, there are fantastic success stories pertaining to companies taking new approaches to partnering that results in higher efficiency and cost savings. That sounds like value to me.
Added value, however, is another thing. Here are a couple of definitions found on the Web on the subject:

Let's not forget Meredith
If you align yourself with the first quotation, you may be standing out, especially if you're twisting it a bit and your intent is to invoice customers for what you call "added value" for things the customer traditionally held to be part of the core package.
In high contrast, if you fit the bill for quote No. 2, you are in fact quite outstanding. You're truly unique.

Now let's ponder where all of your "added value" and "viva la difference" has taken you.

You've spent tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of person hours, communications and training dollars straining out gnats in order to glorify yourself to your customer; when all you had to do to be outstanding was to follow through on what you say and do.
Do this and your intrinsic value will be outstanding and your "added value" will be recognized. No need for all
the hype.

Your true value lies in supplying a demand exactly within the parameters of an agreement. Everything else is secondary.

Consider this: integrated computer software such as MRP/ERP programs don't care if you part your hair in the middle or the side or if you wear a striped hat or boxers; it just doesn't care. There's no pretense. You gauge a system's value on what it achieves and how accurately it achieves it.

If you spend $300,000 on a new software system, you expect value for your dollar and performance as promised. Forget the "added value." All you want is for it to do what it says it will do (or what the sales rep said it would do when he/she sold it to you).
Sometimes we become so wrapped up in trying to be new and exciting and different and unique, boasting of added value here and added value there, we forget the real job we're supposed to be doing. Mostly, customers just want you to do what you say you'll do and charge what you say you will charge.

If, after all of the hype of your branding and bragging, posturing and trying to find ways to invoice for your self-imposed "value added" features, you still can't get your product to your customer on time or accurately with proper documentation, with smooth accounting/administration procedures, what exactly have you accomplished?
I've heard this expressed more than once. The larger the corporation, the higher the probability of receiving inferior and reduced value from the experience. And these folks have brands and software dollars to burn. These folks could pay off the national debt of a number of small countries, yet the only thing that will ever arrive on time from them is their invoice.

In assessing the actual value you bring to the table after trying so hard to be unique and different, why not consider the following?

To your knowledge, have you or anyone in your company/team done any of these things in the past 365 days?

  • Promised a delivery date you knew you could not meet?
  • Quoted an item as "stock" (implying your location) when the product was six states away?
  • From an order of 10, shipped one and back-ordered nine after you'd quoted 10 in stock at your location?
  • Made a sale through the back door?
  • Failed to process an order because the P.O. price differed slightly from the quoted price?
  • Treated the requested documentation on the P.O. with indifference?
  • Deliberately shown up for an unscheduled office visit to a customer location?
  • Quoted third-rate quality to a first-rate company, simply to expedite an order?
  • Quoted delivery of four to 12, or 12 to 24 weeks, or something equally ambiguous on a current project without obtaining an expedited delivery as well?
  • Charged a customer for samples?
  • Failed to truly make the customer problem your problem?
  • Been ignorant of your product lines and tried to bluff your way by pretending that you know something you actually don't?
  • Maligned or bad mouthed your competition?
  • Shipped a RUSH order over a weekend via a unionized courier/carrier or transport company without considering the bargain restrictions?
  • Shipped a RUSH order over a weekend via an air carrier and not considered customs holds?
  • Neglected to pass along a quantity or other discount to the customer?
  • Implemented price hikes on the same product two or three times last year?
  • Acted as if you are doing the customer a big, big favor by reminding them of all the extras you are doing for them?
  • Added on an additional charge to a P.O. without telling the customer first?
  • Shown your impatience with the customer (even when justified)?
  • Sent illegible or stock/bar coded-only, packing lists?
  • Repeatedly quoted in a different currency and not specify which it is until someone asks?
  • Bought and resold an item purchased from a big box store at a huge markup to the customer?
  • Become too "familiar" or too personal with a customer?
  • Repeatedly forgotten the customer's name?
  • Loudly offered a lunch invitation, a beer, drink or anything like it, for others to hear?
  • Neglected to answer telephone calls or e-mails?
  • Gone over the buyer's head?
  • Admitted that some customers get better service?
  • Bid upon a package not of your expertise?
  • Used political clout or external pressures to obtain
  • an order?

If you are wondering what a customer measures in order to assess your value as a supplier, the gist of this list pretty well covers it. If you answered yes to even 30 percent of the questions we just reviewed, then new technology, new improved logos, brands and software don't mean diddley to a customer. Software, hardware, swimwear aside, if you can't manage the basics of an order on time, at the quoted price and without a band to back you up, you're really not very different or outstanding.

You did, however, succeed in standing out.

Malcolm Mills is a 25-year veteran of the purchasing and procurement field and author of "It's a Tough World Out There – 25 Ways to Lose a Customer 25 Ways to Fix It." The book is available by contacting Malcolm directly at, by writing to 13738 #3, Dayspring, Nova Scotia, Canada, B4V 5P3 or order your copy directly on line at

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 edition of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2010, Direct Business Media, LLC.



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