Viewpoints: Is What the Customer Wants What He Needs?
As I travel around North and South America, I have wonderful opportunities to visit many different manufacturing companies whose markets include aerospace, construction, farm, automotive, medical, and many others. As I walk the customer's floor, I see how technology is and isn't used to its full capacity, and I wonder if they were sold the right technology for their needs in the first place.
Some plants I visit are really exciting—they have embellished the technology that is available with many levels of success. They push the envelope and are thinking outside the box, finding new and perhaps less-conventional processes for manufacturing more efficiently and effectively. Then there are the other customers that support the old saying, "if it's not broke, don't fix it." While you can see a transition in their plants from old equipment to brand new or relatively new equipment, you quickly recognize that their methods of processing or manufacturing components haven't changed in 15 or 20 years. What they are really doing is buying today's technology to support their old methods of manufacturing.
In regard to the latter customers, some of this attitude comes from the observation that "they only know what they know." Employees who have worked together for 20–30 years can be very successful; however, they may also start to feel the pinch that comes from global competition and wonder how anyone can make a par t better or faster than they have after all this time in the business. Many of these same customers don't appear to invest much in their people by sending them to shows, open-house events, seminars, or even free online webinars. They miss the opportunity to visit other manufacturing companies surrounding them—in and outside of their markets—to learn how to apply technology in new ways.
Now take into consideration that the supplier has previously visited a customer. The customer requests information on a particular machine, asks when it's available, and to please deliver a quote. The supplier/sales engineer does as requested, and honestly believes he's doing a service. I know because I've asked. I've asked, What is the machine for, what is the customer going to make, and how do you know if the requested equipment is right for the job?" When the response is, "Because that's what the customer asked for, and I'm giving him exactly what he wants." I find myself asking, "So, now you're a mailman?"
What I'm hearing is that despite all the knowledge and expertise possessed, the supplier/sales engineer chose to give the customer what he wanted, and just deliver a quote. I agree that we want to make the customer happy. However, this is where we, as suppliers, have an opportunity to show the customer what he really needs; to give the justifications as to why it is not only better, but is more effective and beneficial for the customer's business. As a result, we can start providing a value and be an extension of the customer's manufacturing thought process—just by sharing our expertise and knowledge.
Because customers face many manufacturing challenges and pressures from competition all over the world, being aware of technological advances can provide a competitive advantage. For example, knowing how to potentially reduce direct labor costs or find better ways to look at standardizing raw materials could afford customers some big benefits. Yet many customers may not know what questions to ask, or what they really need. Perhaps the supplier needs to ask more questions of the customer to understand what he was trying to accomplish with the investment he was making.
If we, as suppliers, can get customers to start thinking a little differently in order to stay more competitive in a constantly changing market, perhaps we can add value to manufacturing instead of just being mailmen. It's worth taking a little more time to understand an individual's needs before you arbitrarily deliver him what he wants, because you may have helped him go out of business when you thought you were helping him stay in business.
This article was first published in the September 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.