Have you ever had a supplier promise an in-hands date and then call at the last minute to say the shipment was not going to make it?
This situation happens to everyone I’ve ever known in my 20-plus years in this great industry. It’s not fun for suppliers to convey this news and it’s worse to receive this news. No product in hand means no products for your client’s event and a lost sale at the minimum; at worst, a lost relationship.
By no means are my suggestions perfect or applicable in every case, but here are a few suggestions I’ve learned from my own experience and from working with such industry greats as Ron Wolfman, Rod Brown, Curtis Uejo, Doug Carson, Fred Albrecht, Rex Shoemake and Eric Nelson.
“What should I have done?”
First, let’s assume that you double- and triple-checked the order’s progress from receipt at the factory and approval of an emailed proof, and the factory’s confirmation of receiving your approval, to confirmation of the ship date, ship method, and in-hands date, as well as correct item, quantity, color, logo, etc.
Finally, you confirmed inventory when you sent in your purchase order and again when you approved the email proof.
Let’s also assume that your company’s credit is good and that “suddenly” the factory is not holding the order as a demand for payment in full for old debts. Again, this no doubt would have come up when the supplier received your P.O. and you confirmed it.
If all the paperwork is in order and you received only green lights, did you request and receive tracking numbers? If you did not get a tracking number the day the products shipped or early the next business day, this could indicate that the products didn’t ship.
Second, once the ship date comes and goes, and you don’t have confirmation that your products shipped, the first thing to do is double-check your order notes:
a. Is this a true in-hands date? Or, did you give yourself a day or two of padding? Check your emails. Did the customer say, “We must receive by this date or we don’t accept the goods”? Or do you have a few more days?
b. Assuming the in-hands date is true, contact the supplier, find out what happened and immediately treat this as a “What can we (supplier and I) do to save the project and save the relationship?”
An adversarial approach is not productive unless you’re prepared to take action against the supplier. Even if you do that, you still won’t solve this challenge. So, for the time being at least, take off your “Sue the bastards!” hat and put on your “We’re partners! We can find a solution together!” hat.
Consider these things in adopting a true partnership/solution-focused attitude:
1. Is it a matter of the item suddenly and unexpectedly being out of inventory? Or was there a defect discovered? Or, after the emailed proof, did factory discover that the item could not be decorated with the art provided?
Move quickly through this stage. This isn’t the time to find and assign fault.
Yes, you’re upset. And who wouldn’t be? But let’s assume that your supplier is upset, too. The company wants your business. It wants your respect. It wants your future business and probably your formal and informal support among peers both in and outside your organization.Assume that their reputation is as important to them as yours is to you.
This leads to focusing on a solution and not on the problem.
2. What other product can the factory offer that they can get out the door immediately? “Immediately” may mean same day. Many great factories offer same-day service. Not all products may be offered and there may be print limitations, e.g., one color, etc., but why close the door on this option if you’ll still be able to deliver your client something that may save the day?
Important note: When customers order, are they the only ones in their organizations who chose this item? Think about it. If your customer is the only one who decided on this item, a substitute item may still work for their audience, particularly if their audience has no idea what was ordered. Yes, the customer will be upset. But you can put some salve on the big wound by offering something that their recipients may still like, use and think well of the giver, even if it’s not what your customer wanted.
Ideal World Scenario: Your supplier steps up and offers something of the same or equal monetary value. Or, it might offer an item of higher-perceived value at the same cost. What do you like to hear when you order something in the real world? Have you ever had this situation: You are told at the last minute, “Sorry. We’re out of X. But we can give you X++ at same price to further apologize for the inconvenience.” Do you feel like your business and trust were honored? Would you come back to this company? Would you pay the invoice for its product or service? I think “Yes …”
Reality Scenario: Sure, if you wanted that one-of-a-kind “X,” anything short of it may be a disaster for you. And heck yeah—when a deadline is missed, can anything truly undo your disappointment? Maybe, maybe not, as each set of facts is different. But not working for a solution is surely a guaranteed path to failure.
3. Once you establish what replacement items are available and upon which you and your supplier can agree, you can explore delivery options:
a. Is your supplier set up to individually drop-ship to each and every known recipient?
b. Is your supplier within driving distance of the event?
c. Are you within driving distance of the supplier? Can you get a messenger or dedicated courier involved?
d. How fast can the factory ship the replacement items?
e. Is the event date on a Friday? Can the recipient or event venue receive deliveries over the weekend?
f. Can you ship to the customer after the event, and work out a re-ship solution from the customer’s office to the recipients?
The Value Of The Deal Is The Value Of Your Relationship With Your Customer And Supplier
None of these solutions is going to make you or your supplier any money. You both may lose the profits you each expected. But we all have to ask ourselves these questions when these scenarios come up:
1. What would we want if we were in our client’s shoes?
2. Can we afford to lose this client?
3. What is your relationship like with this factory? Is it the first time you’ve used them? Is it in your “preferred” network and therefore will do whatever it takes to make you whole again? Is the factory saying “Hey—stuff happens. We’re sorry. We won’t charge you for the setup but there’s nothing else we can do”? Or, are they viewing this as more than a transaction?
Taking the position that the factory is honorable and it will spend its money to make good here keeps things professional and keeps the heated emotions in check. Again, no one wants to file a lawsuit or defend against one.
Bottom line, what are the relationships with your client and with your supplier worth? Are you prepared to fire both? Are you willing to be fired by the client?
Who Signs The Checks At The Factory?
My first boss in this industry was the great Ron Wolfman of San Francisco-based Noel Associates. When stuff hit the fan on projects and he wasn’t getting the help he wanted from the first line of customer service at the factory to fix something, Ron would often ask that same customer service rep, “Who signs the paychecks at your factory?” He then either got transferred or called back and asked for that person. It may still be true today that he or she is truly the person who could make things happen.
In other words, if you’re not getting the cooperation from the factory CSR you’ve been speaking with, climb the ladder to the person in charge of customer service, the national sales manager, the principal(s) or owners. The term “iron fist in a velvet glove” may be old school, but being firm while being respectful and polite may produce the results you want.
Stay With This Factory Or Find Another?
Assumption: You found this item on your own or your client specifically chose it from a source. In other words, you did not get multiple bids from multiple factories. If that’s the scenario, and you are flying solo and have no associates or CSRs on your team to help you, you may not be able to simultaneously find another factory that has the same or similar item and can ship it overnight.
However, no matter what, here’s what you can do:
1. Send an email to all the multi-line reps you know, even if they don’t have anything in their stable remotely similar to this item. Tell them the scenario and ask them if any of their factories can do anything to help or if they know of a factory with a possible solution. Provide all details about price, quantity, number of colors in the logo, etc. Send the logo in that same email.
2. Do a product search using all tools you use.
3. Contact all the factories you know who can turn something in a day. It doesn’t have to be this item, but say you’re looking for something to fill the nothing you now have.
4. Send an email to friendly competitors from your professional association to ask for substitute product ideas.
Solutions Obtained, Next Steps
Once you find a solution,get a confirmation or acknowledgement in writing:
- Include the item, cost, ship date, method, etc.
- If your solution is with the original factory, reference the new item as an alternative to the original and cancel the original item.
- Establish a timeline for action: How long do you have to make this happen?
Contact The Customer: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.”
1. You know how your customer likes to communicate but call, email and text: “Please call me ASAP …”
2. Ask for confirmation on the actual in-hands date;
3. Offer an apology and a solution—these are inseparable. Do not let the customer divide and conquer by saying: “I can’t do X but I’m ready right now to do Y.”
a. Reference the customer’s ego, exposure and vulnerability, internally and externally, on the item chosen
b. Offer to mitigate the situation by offering additional goods at no charge and providing a personal apology to the manager, an apology from the factory, a personalized gift, etc.
c. Can you offer a price discount? If you’re offering a higher-valued item, you may not feel inclined to offer more.
When presenting the solution to your client, make these points:
1. Compare the product you originally ordered to your new solution:
a. Emphasize higher value and higher perceived value all at the same cost;
b. Emphasize your expedited freight solution at no extra charge to the customer (It’s for you and your factory to resolve.);
c. Prepare a mock-up of the solutions with their logo
2. If you know you still have a day or two before the in-hands deadline, emphasize it.
a. Proceed with the alternative by confirming in writing to the supplier and getting a confirmation back acknowledging each and every term in the list below:
b. Tracking numbers: Get them the moment they are available. When in doubt, have someone at the factory take a photo of them so you see can ensure the right method is being used for shipment, etc. Send a copy to your customer.
c. Cancel your original order and confirm in writing. Get your costs from the factory noted in writing. Confirm any costs in writing to the customer.
Follow Up With All Parties
a. Factory apology letter: Yes! The honorable factory principals will support this and probably offer this. You need to email them on what you want them to say and start from there. This may not help you, but you owe it to yourself to keep yourself whole.
b. Your apology to your client: How and what you say depends on your relationship.
c. Offer to apologize to client’s boss. Everyone has someone to whom they report. “Fall on your sword” and you may save your relationship with that client-buyer.
The Bottom Line
There’s a legal term called “making someone whole.” In other words, a failure to deliver what the buyer ordered (or contracted for) is like removing a piece that makes it impossible for them to succeed. It doesn’t matter to the customer who is responsible. The customer buys from you.
We all know that the missing part could be the right item, the right imprint color, the right number of imprint colors, the right item color, the right delivery date, the right delivery location, the right quantity and so on.
We have to find the solution to keep “whole” in the eyes of our clients or soon they will be someone else’s clients.
There are a lot of pieces to completing a successful project. One missing piece can ruin it and put you in breach of contract. So, legalities aside, you want to treat your client as you want to be treated, so explore all options to make them whole again.
We all want to think we have a true partnership with our clients and factories. Heavy sigh—it’s not always the case. Perhaps it’s rarely the case. Still, we are an industry based on trust that we all will do what we say we will do. Stuff happens every day on the distributor and supplier sides to turn projects upside down. Clients too are human. They miss our deadlines, change their minds, fail to pay, and fail to honor their own proof approvals and so on.
Our P.O.s to factories are contracts. If something goes wrong, enforcing the contract can be painful, time consuming and immensely costly. Sometimes we cannot enforce the contract because shipping docks are closed or snow prevents the shipping company’s airplane from taking off. And yes, sometimes the factory fails us no matter how many times we confirmed the order.
Our industry is filled with many tremendously creative and resourceful professionals who no doubt have solutions I’ll never be aware of. But I hope that these tips will help someone else along the way.
Dan Ahern, JD, is principal at distributor Fog City Marketing/A Division of PROforma Albrecht Co. in Corte Madera, California.