Just the other day I overheard one of our DISHER design engineers, say, “Well, the customer’s always right!” He was attempting to shrug off being trumped by his customer’s decision on a particular design direction. We’ve all heard this phrase before but this time it made me stop and think… If I argue with my customer they might pull the business… next thing you know my spouse and children will be begging in the street… and my name will be ‘Mud’! Despite these fears, when I heard the phrase this time— it struck an unjust chord and I had to speak up.
I could not let my design engineer throw in the towel on something he believed was a better solution for the customer. I piped up, “The customer is NOT always right.” Then I paused and added, “But the customer is always the customer.” We all take pride in our work; we want to succeed and we want our customers to do the same. Our customer’s success creates a wonderful by-product: our success! This realization helped me distill what our duty is as a supplier. We not only try to deliver what the customer wants, but we are committed to showing them the best path to success. Sometimes this means going in a different direction than the customer wants. The challenge is to recommend the best solution in a way that delivers a win-win outcome for both parties.
It’s a familiar story… our customer heads down a path that may lead to unnecessary grief for all of us. We know this because we’ve been down that road before, giving good reason to justify taking a better direction. To make matters worse, sometimes a customer makes our teammates feel as though their opinion has no value… then we watch as that customer struggles to make their own decision. We want to avoid “I told you so” situations, and we don’t want our customers getting creative on how to ascribe blame back to us. The answer to this common challenge can be found in how we perceive our role as the supplier.
At one end of the supplier-customer relationship continuum is the master-slave relationship. The customer says, “Supplier, I want you to do X, Y and Z and I want you to do it this particular way.” And the supplier says, “Yes, sir!” It’s obvious who the supplier is and who the customer is. This works well for business relationships where the supplier is happy serving up exactly what the customer tells them to deliver.
At the other end of the supplier-customer relationship continuum is the emergency- room scenario. Here, it’s not so obvious who the supplier or customer is. You, as the paying customer, come in banged up and delirious, not quite sure what to do. The doctor, as the supplier being paid, is the one calling all the shots, taking charge, and setting the direction on what to do.
Good design and engineering firms fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. They navigate the river with their customers, guiding them through the white waters of product development while avoiding the rocks and pitfalls that always arise. With our experience, we’re alert to the hazards that can rock the boat or even sink it. So, how do we lead our customers successfully? The answer, and the challenge, lies in the middle of the continuum.
The middle of the supplier-customer relationship continuum is what I call the whitewater rafting guide. As the whitewater raft guide, we are paid by our customers to navigate them happily down the river. They want to have fun, feel the excitement, and be safe on the river. That defines success to them. Our job is to effectively lead them down the river and make their experience a positive one. After all, they will tell their friends about us.
As product development and business solution professionals, our customers want success but at times they lack the experience that we can provide. They may think they know which path is best, but unfortunately it may lead them (and us) crashing into the rocks. The best approach is to lead and guide while still affording them autonomy as the customer. When we show them a better path, be tactful and respectful. Bring clear objectivity to reasoning with factual data, case studies, etc. Show them the benefits of our path while still honoring theirs. In some cases we can even make them think that choosing our path was their decision. If we can manage this, then we’ve accomplished a great feat! We have differentiated ourselves from the competition, avoided pain and grief, and have brought success to everyone involved.
In the end, our customer pays for the product or service delivered, and that always makes them the customer. Their success is our highest priority. If we can lead our customers effectively through the whitewater— they will rely on us more and more and they will tell others about the positive difference we made in their experience.
Written By: Jeff Disher, Founder & President | Jeff is a 26 year veteran of new product development. He has held roles in program management, product design, manufacturing, quality and training & development. He has a BS from Hope College and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He also is a certified Professional Engineer in the State of Michigan. Jeff and his family enjoy many outdoor activities.