I’ve written an opinion column in our industry for almost 20 years—very close to a quarter-million words on events in our industry—and I often check my archives on certain topics so that I can attempt to contribute new (or, at least, updated) insights on the subjects I’ve written about. Yet, there are threads that have run through the last two decades consistently. In particular, issues of customer service, pricing, market development and dealer/supplier relationships are evergreen.

The problems inherent in the dealer/supplier marriage have been dismayingly consistent…often dysfunctional at a reality-show level. We still regularly hear us versus them rhetoric from independent dealers, much of it centering on price and distribution policies. Those well-chewed topics have fueled decades of discussion. I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember angry rants pre-Internet and pre-GC: complaints about reps who would divert hot product to favored dealers, all sorts of “off-sheet” pricing for big accounts and enough backroom hardball dealing to make any crooked politician flash a thumbs-up. Frankly, if you don’t remember that era, you might not believe how much things have improved.

What continues to bother me, though, aren’t the “unfair” practices we hear about. Sure, inequities still exist. Frankly, something of that sort has been around—in most industries, at least—since they awarded the sandstone contract for the pyramids. As parents have reminded us for almost as long, life is unfair, so we’d better learn to deal with it. And, actually, most of us have found some niche that allows us to exist in this unfair world.

What concerns me most right now is how poorly some suppliers do their job when I’m actually buying from them. That, unfortunately, is what costs me more than any pricing or distribution policy foisted on independent dealers.

As retailers, we have had to change, upgrade and rethink everything we do: from marketing and display, to product mix, to the very models on which we base our businesses. Although our suppliers certainly have made dramatic changes to their operations, and they’ve had to deal with problems we seldom think about (currency exchange rates and international shipping, for example), when it comes to the seemingly basic act of product fulfillment, many suppliers in our industry continue to fall short. My impression is that they’re so beset at the manufacturing and procurement end—and so embroiled in satisfying the superstar divas on the retail side—that the rather mundane aspects of supplying small industry storefronts have gotten lost in the noise.

This is painfully evident in the majority of interactions I have with suppliers in MI. There’s a new story every week, it seems. Although, to be honest, I’m sure I see more of it because I do hundreds of special orders for customers every month. If you place a big ol’ Fender order each quarter, for example, there might be a problem with a guitar in the shipment; it’ll be sorted out while you sell the other products, though. I, however, have a large number of customers who call me to order their favorite reeds, sticks or strings, to get a particular accessory or to procure a specific edition of a Beethoven sonata. We keep our inventory lean and low, so we order several times a week for replenishment and we add customer items to those orders. Those customer items are often half of the order or more. We depend on responsive, rapid, accurate fulfillment to maintain goodwill and to compete against Amazon.

Yet, at least once a week, there’s a problem. I can understand out of stocks, since we, too, run razor-thin inventory cycles. But, it’s a little galling to order from a company that seems to prioritize adding lines and proprietary products, as opposed to stocking bread-and-butter items…even their own. I often find myself ordering from jobbers rather than the source, because the company that sells to the jobbers is out. I know how it happens: The big orders are filled, leaving nothing for the small guys, because they have to have that money to pay for production, interest, etc. It sure doesn’t increase my loyalty, though.

When I can’t reach a rep—any rep—at a supplier without waiting for a return e-mail or a response to a voicemail, it’s a deal breaker. Sorry, folks, but I can’t take the time to write an e-mail and wait for a reply when a customer is standing in front of me. I have customers who are happy to order from me—but they want the answer now. I sold a $400 autoharp because I could call the distributor on the spot and determine that the product was in stock. That order would have gone online if I couldn’t answer right away. Unfortunately, when I called a couple of days later to get an ETA on the item (because no e-mail with tracking number was sent), I spent 20 minutes on hold waiting for “the next available rep.” Twice. If I wanted to do that, I’d call the electric company. Thank goodness the customer wasn’t deciding to order then!

Now, add in the mis-fills, incorrect quantities and damaged items in one out of five orders. In the old days, telling a customer that the item was delayed might tick off him or her, but, since there was no faster source, the person calmed down. Now, you lose a customer—for life in many cases—and you lose him or her to Amazon, not to the guy down the street who will mess something up and eventually bounce the person back to you.

If you only order from a handful of suppliers every week or two, you might not feel underserved. If your orders are big enough, your rep might be more thorough. But, if a small, local store—the majority of storefronts in our industry—served customers the way that many supply-side companies serve rank-and-file dealers, we might as well turn out the lights and drive for Uber…until Amazon starts to fly people around in drones.

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