You're always in a start-up mode

Twenty-five plus years ago I worked for a small, third generation family-owned business. It was a challenging environment because Walter, the 'father' (2nd generation) and Joe, his son (third generation) worked side-by-side.

The generation gap was quite pronounced and evident on a daily basis; Walter was happy with where the company was and Joe wanted to expand and grow (which was the reason to hire me). And so one day, working closely with our sales rep on the West Coast, we were able to secure an order from Hewlett Packard (HP). It was also the largest purchase order the company has ever received. We were actually in the medical device manufacturing business and one of our specialties was precision needles. HP ordered needles for their new line of inkjet printers and the needles were going to be used in their production line.

The order came with a caveat; we quoted an eight-week lead time to deliver the needles. HP wanted them in four weeks in order to be able to present their new line during a national sales meeting. Walter and Joe said, "absolutely not, we stick by our lead times and we don't play favorites with our customers." Moreover, Walter emphatically stated, "I don't let any of those big companies dictate how I run my business. "

Our growth strategy was based on securing key accounts, like HP, where our ability to be a strategic manufacturing partner will lead to repeat and high volume orders. This was a test we couldn't fail.

For the record, I wholeheartedly supported the notion that we don't play favorites with our customers. In the manufacturing business, lead times are critical to maintaining on-time delivery. When you expedite one job, others will likely be late. But this was an exception, a decision that will impact our ability to meet our goals; adding HP as a customer and being able to deliver to factories around the world was, with this order, a realistic objective.

The father and his son were not going to budge. The company was founded in 1922, this was roughly seventy plus years later, and in their mind, it was the right way to address the challenge - live with our lead time or go somewhere else.

Staring at my growing bald spot (yep, the tear-your-hair out syndrome) I had a last-ditch effort; what can I say that will resonate, without insulting their way of maintaining a profitable business for so many years?

I sat down with my employers and said:
"Let me ask you a question, Walter. Let's roll back the clock and pretend to be way back when you just started, when every order meant meeting payroll, feeding your family. If you had received such a large order, what would you do?"
Walter didn't hesitate for one second and answered: "We would have worked non stop to deliver it ahead of time."
We looked at each other and with a smile on his face Walter said, "you made your point, let's give HP what they want."

This scene has never left me. It has been a constant reminder that successful businesses are always in start-up mode regardless of how small, or more often, how big they are. It requires a deep sense of humility that even with top-line sales of $90 million, you still regard every order and every customer as if it's the day you opened and are desperate for any business - the first order that will get you a loyal customer and perhaps even pay for rent.

This isn't Harvard Business School material. It's an entrepreneurial mindset, your internal business compass reminding you that nothing- business, customers, economy or you name it- should ever be taken for granted. This is especially true when your business is doing well, growing, expanding, making a lot of money.

If you're in business for the long run, adopt a humbling mindset ensuring that each order and customer are regarded as if they represent the first order you’ve ever received.

During a meeting with my customer service team I posed this question:

“Can anyone tell, simply by the sound of the ringing and before you pick up the phone, whether the person on the other line is our next million dollar customer or someone who will not buy anything?”

“Right.

So we answer the phone with the same dedication to serve and without regard to what happens next. And because we learn time and time again that often, the caller that appeared to be the least likely to place that big order, surprised us later. We don’t ever want to feel that any call was “the one that got away.”

Any incoming call, email inquiry or comment on a social media post are equally important.

What would you have done if this was your very first order or customer?"

Zev Asch