Adding That Personal Touch

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatIt seems that lessons can be found all around us – lessons of what to do and lessons of what not to do. I wonder how many of these learning opportunities I miss because I am too busy to spot them. The ones that I do notice, I find instructive and beneficial. A case in point is my printer. I recently looked for a new one. Not the printer that prints this magazine, but rather my local printer used to handle my business stationary and other printing needs.

I had essentially been using the same printer for 17 years. This bridged a time of many changes. On my part, it transcended two places of employment; on their part, it spanned three ownerships, a time of expansion and then contraction, several name changes, and lastly a merger.

Initially I began using this printer because they were close to my office, had competitive pricing, and were accommodating and easy to work with. These are astute business reasons for making a wise and prudent vendor selection: convenience, price, and service.

What struck me, however, was their collective friendliness. It didn’t matter who I talked to or how. Whether on the phone or in person, they were always friendly. The next steps beyond friendliness are acquaintance and relationship. I got to know the owner – who never felt it condescending to wait on me – and his key staff. We developed a relationship. With a relationship comes understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. Let me explain.

Although they exemplified the adage to perform “under promise and over deliver,” there were occasions when things did not go as expected. Sometimes this was my fault, sometimes theirs, but regardless we worked together for the common good of our long-term relationship to reach an acceptable solution. I understood that they were in business to make money, that ultimately they needed me to be a profitable account; likewise they understood that I needed their product to be in an acceptable and usable form. Without a relationship, instead of seeking our mutual benefit, we would have sought our individual self-interest; we would have become adversarial.

Similarly, relationship begets tolerance. Tolerance overlooks the small stuff, the things that don’t really matter. If the wrong paper was used but didn’t affect its essential utility, tolerance made it acceptable. However, if the paper selection was integral to its final form or function, then reprinting was in order; our relationship prompted their desire to reprint and tolerance that gave me the desire to allow for extra time.

Lastly is the relational benefit of forgiveness. If a deadline was missed, I would try to be forgiving as a byproduct of relationship. If I needed to unexpectedly move up a routine project to become a rush job or needed to change a parameter in mid-production, they would tolerate the lack of forethought and planning on my part.

One day I walked into their shop. In the time that it took me to stride from the door to the counter, three people momentarily stopped their work, glanced up smiling, and cheerfully greeted me by name. They were glad to see me, and I was happy to be there. It was Bob who approached me. “We’re just like Cheers,” he beamed, “We’re the printer, where everybody knows your name!” He was right, they did know my name and that made me feel welcomed and appreciated.

Bob and I got to know each other quite well over the years.  When Bob bought into the business, he was quick to share his exciting news.  I changed jobs and Bob’s downtown shop was no longer convenient for me, but I kept going anyway. When he relocated to manage a satellite store, I followed him there, rejoicing that it was closer. Later, when a downturn in the economy made it necessary for that location to be shuttered, my loyalty followed him to a third location. It was not as convenient, but the extra drive was worth it to see Bob.

Then they “merged” with another company. This resulted in yet another name change and a subsequent closing of Bob’s satellite office. Needing to have some envelopes printed, I returned to their original location. I was dismayed to see no one I knew and no one who knew me. Sadly, I represented an order, not a relationship; I was an invoice, not a business partner.

It’s not that these things are integral to printing stationary, but they are a pleasant bonus. Having a personal connection with my printer does not have a direct bearing on the quality of their output or affect the utility of the final product. In a hard-core business sense, these things don’t matter.

Or do they? When I picked up my order, I was shocked at the bill. Their rates had gone up – a lot – but foolishly I had not checked.  I had given the new regime the trust earned by the old regime and was paying the price – quite literally – for that lapse.

When I began using the envelopes, I was again distressed. There were problems with two of the first 20 envelopes that I grabbed. A 10% error rate is not the quality that I expected or paid for. Although that ratio has grown decidedly better as I have worked through the box, the initial impression stuck with me. In the old days, I would have called up Bob, and we would have worked something out.  Now I did not know who to call – and didn’t really care. There was no relationship any more. Mentally, I was already searching for another printer.

What I learned is to be appropriately personal in both conversation and in business; build relationships; avoid a professional distance or a clinical detachment. In the long-term, adding that personal touch is good business – and good medicine.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From the June/July 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]