In the classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a man, played by Steve Martin, is at the end of his rope after enduring excruciatingly cheerful but uncooperative service at a car- rental agency. His flight has been diverted. His train has broken down in a field. And now, unable to contain himself any longer, he informs the agent behind the counter that he needs “a f*cking car, right f*cking now!”
We’ve all been there, and one of the culprits, other than poor execution itself, can be rapid growth. Some companies expand so quickly that they outrun their customer service capabilities. When startups take off, it is all too often the customer who is left in the wake.
This is the downside of the kind of success it takes to make the Inc. 5000. But if fast-growing companies had their priorities straight, confrontations like these would never happen.
First of all, the problems that cause customers to need help–poorly manufactured products, inconsistent service delivery–would have been nipped in the bud before they became the customers’ problems. Second, service reps would have been trained to treat customers like gold, because that can mean the difference between having customers who stand by you and having customers who scream obscenities about you into the World Wide Web.
So let’s focus on how to deal with f*ckups and how to prevent your high-revving engine of a firm from blowing a gasket because you’ve promised customers more than you can deliver.
Problems are rarely simple to diagnose and fix. Often, they require asking a lot of questions, and founders can be reluctant to ask questions, either of customers or of potential contractors they’re entrusting with their company’s good name. But you can never have too much information when you’re troubleshooting a problem. It’s the only way you’ll learn how to improve your product and the only way you’ll know whether your suppliers deserve your trust.
I’m on the record as not being a proponent of using overseas contract manufacturers. To say the least, they are overseas, and you are not. That in itself is a quality-control issue. But overseas manufacturers don’t have a monopoly on these kinds of problems. They can crop up when you design and manufacture close to home, too. Believe me, I know.
In the United States, too many founders think those self-proclaimed manufacturing experts, loaded with buzzwords, are people to be trusted. Quite the opposite–they are likely baffling with bullsh*t. Highly competent people should be able to explain things to you in simple terms that you can easily understand. If not–run! This is crucial stuff you’re talking about.
There’s a concept (and a classic business book) by the management consultant Philip B. Crosby around the idea that “quality is free.” And this is true, as long as quality is integral to the initial manufacturing process. We learned this firsthand when we helped out a food and beverage maker.
The founders came to us with a great-tasting beverage, and we were enthusiastically thinking that they were Inc. 5000 material. But their quality control went out the window after a company they contracted to package their product didn’t understand their precise requirements, which were quite different from those for the typical product the contractor handled.
The problems began to mount. First, ingredients weren’t maintained in a consistent environment, a situation that, in any food processing environment, inevitably leads to an inconsistent product–the last thing anyone wants. Then, to make matters worse, the finished product sat for weeks in a warehouse where the fluctuating temperature and humidity added yet more variability.
Problems are rarely simple to diagnose and fix. Often, they require asking a lot of questions, and founders can be reluctant to ask questions, either of customers or of potential contractors they’re entrusting with their company’s good name.
All this took place in the depths of the pandemic, which did nothing to help the situation. Nevertheless, there were things the founders could have done to prevent some, if not all, of the problems they would encounter.
The most important thing to do is talk to people. That includes asking a potential contract manufacturer for references and then actually calling them, as well as talking to the people who clock in every day in the production facility–if they’ve been there a while, then they know a hell of a lot. Ask the hard but necessary questions and then find an objective source who’ll verify the answers. These founders didn’t do that. They entrusted their product to people who didn’t care about it as much as they did–and they paid the price.
Despite all that, let’s face it: Sh*t happens, even when you’re a control freak, like yours truly. No matter how careful you think you’ve been before launching a product, something’s going to get overlooked, or a part won’t perform as it did during testing, or any number of other problems will crop up. What did Tolstoy say about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way? The same is true with products. And it’s up to you to try to catch the problem before the customer becomes the unhappy one.
At Big Ass Fans, we were in our 13th year–and our fifth on the Inc. 5000 list–and all set to launch an expansion of our residential fan line, one that we marketed as spectacularly silent. Just to be sure, I had one of these silent spinners installed in my home to confirm that it worked as promised, as I did with all our products. Sure enough, the damn thing made noise. So, in fact, did I. We delayed the launch while our engineers got to the bottom of the problem and designed a fix. A few tempers, ahem, may have flared in the process, but it was better to have one angry owner than hundreds of angry customers sending fans back.
Too many founders think those self-proclaimed manufacturing experts, loaded with buzzwords, are people to be trusted. Quite the opposite.
Our attempts to head problems off at the pass took another form in 2012, when we decided to venture into the Wild West that was the internet of things and make the world’s first smart ceiling fan. We knew we were asking for all kinds of new trouble. Internet connectivity with so many router variations would be our biggest pain point, and issues could develop at any hour. So we made a digital book of every available connective device and started both second and third shifts of customer service that would be available to solve problems day or night. I know our customers appreciated it.
Indeed, with all our products, the primary way we tried to nip disaster before it budded was to employ a team of customer advocates whose sole responsibility was gathering feedback and referring any problems to the appropriate person. Those advocates contacted every last one of our customers at regular intervals after a sale to see if they were happy. If they were, great. If they weren’t, well, that was even better, because that was how we improved our fans.
Every month, the team would give me a printout of any problems that had been reported and how they’d been dealt with. That way, fingers crossed, we learned from our mistakes and didn’t go on to repeat them. And I don’t think the customers minded being asked, because we had a net promoter score that was about triple the manufacturing industry average.
Too often, founders are reluctant to contact their customers, and they certainly don’t want to hear anything bad when their companies are flying high. Instead, they base decisions on what they’d like to hear, and that’s a damn shame.
Because they’re missing out on the best intel there is on how to improve their products and build their brands. And, in the immortal words of that car-rental agent after listening to Steve Martin’s tirade, that means they’re probably f*cked.
From the September 2022 issue of Inc. Magazine