We were really busy: our sheet metal shop fabricated products for jobs we had sold and also for other companies. I decided and told my father that I was going to let our sales and office personnel know that we would no longer take walk-in business. He was quiet and then asked me to drive with him to a local diner for a cup of coffee.
Over coffee he told me what it was like going into business during the Great Depression. He related how they would often go days without the phone ringing or a customer coming through the door. He spoke of driving around the county looking for someone building a home or an addition to one and stopping by to see if there was anything his company could supply. He told of how a number of the people he had sold to during the Great Depression had became loyal customers for many years: a smile and a thank you for a two-dollar order led to tens of thousands of dollars of business. He said that every customer was precious then as well as now. Needless to say, we didn’t stop accepting walk-in or any other kinds of business.
In Tallahassee, they use to tell the story of a wealthy but eccentric plantation owner who wanted to buy a new piece of farm equipment. Dressed in coveralls, wearing old shoes and a straw hat, he was ignored by the salesmen at the local tractor dealership. Finally, a mechanic stopped and asked him if he was being helped. The plantation owner said he wanted to buy a tractor and asked how much the one he was standing next to cost. The mechanic replied he didn’t know but he would find out. After checking with the sales manager the serviceman returned and said the price was $10,000. The plantation owner pulled out his wallet, counted out one hundred $100 bills, handed them to the astonished fellow and told him to get him a bill of sale. Over the years, the plantation owner bought many other pieces of equipment and his only sales person was the mechanic who took time to inquire if he needed help.
A former owner of a retail building supply company told me about the changes being implemented by the national building supply chain he sold to. With a plan to sell to production builders, one of the first was the decision to no longer seek business from custom builders. When the housing market collapsed, he spoke about calling one of those former customers only to be told, “you didn’t need me when times were good; I don’t need you now.”
In every business I have been involved in, there have been people who made the decision to only chase the big orders. Let me tell you, it has been my experience that people are lined up outside the door hoping to make a big sale. Those sales are tough to come by; your prices have to be low and there will be a demand for service. You also become a captive to the big customers; if they sneeze, you shake; and if you should lose one, you lose a large portion of your total sales.
Times are tough. Like when my dad went into the business, there are days that the phone doesn’t ring. However, there are opportunities to take advantage of as you learn to appreciate the small sales that you might have ignored during booming times and build relationships that will pay off in the future.
“Always try to do something for the other fellow and you will be agreeably surprised how things come your way — how many pleasing things are done for you.” – Claude M. Bristol