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Mar 01 2017
Customer Visits - An Inefficient Use of Time or Valuable?
Allen Vickers, CCE, A&K Railroad Materials, Inc
As smart phones increasingly offer more options, for many people it is a toss-up question of which you could least afford to go without - your wallet or your cell phone? We use cell phones and computers for everything from social media, to completing financial transactions, to getting directions.

Of course, in business, we all rely heavily upon computers. And why not, as the internet has a wealth of information. It has grown to the point that a number of credit managers feel they can find just about everything they want to know about their customers right on their computer.

With so much information at your fingertips, have you ever found yourself weighing the pros and cons of a face-to-face visit to a delinquent, or somewhat unresponsive customer? One such dilemma occurred to me when a couple of customer accounts began to deteriorate rapidly. At the time, I was new to the railroad supply industry. However, I was not new to credit, and it felt like it was time to make a personal visit.

After scheduling to meet up with the salesman for that territory, I proceeded to set up appointments with several customers, including the two that were severely delinquent. However, on the day of my departure to the airport, the salesman called to say he would be unable to meet me due to an emergency.There I was, on a plane to Chicago, new to an industry, in route to meet customers without the benefit of the person who had been selling to them for years. Little did I realize at the time that things were about to deteriorate further!

After a few stops in Chicago, I drove to one of the delinquent customers whose plant was located in Milwaukee. When the introductions had been completed, the Vice-President went with me to the company owner's office. It soon became apparent he had little interest in discussing his large, overdue bill. His attitude was aloof and reminded me quickly of a scene from a Godfather movie as the owner eventually invited me to take a ride in his dark limousine to one of his Italian restaurants. Still determined to obtain a payment or commitment, I accepted his offer. Despite trying to find the owners hot button, or a conscience, nothing changed during lunch, nor during the ride back to the plant. Once again, in his office, I outlined a few options on liquidating his obligation outside of litigation. But, upon obtaining no commitment, I prepared to leave. As I was getting into my car in the parking lot, the Vice-President approached me saying, "Can I speak with you for a few minutes privately?" Since there was no pistol visible, I agreed. Immediately he began to apologize for the company's current situation and for the owner's behavior. He disclosed something which had already been a suspicion; the owner had been taking large sums of money from the business to buy, furnish, and open a couple of restaurants.Wondering where the conversation was going, he suddenly got my attention with an offer I couldn't refuse. "If I can get you paid in full within the next six weeks, would you not hold my association with this company against me should I apply for credit after opening my own business?" As far as I was concerned, it took a lot of character to make that statement. And after all, isn't Character one of the 5 Cs of Credit?

Departing for my next appointment, I was feeling that things were looking a little more positive. However, that feeling did not last very long as a message was received from my other customer that was going to meet me in Milwaukee. He had been delayed at a job site and would be unable to meet with me this trip. With no other appointments scheduled I returned to Chicago with not much to show for my trip other than possibilities.

Later that evening my Wisconsin customer called, asking if I could meet him for a late breakfast in Green Bay. Despite having an afternoon flight, plus needing to drive 3 1/2 hours each way, the invitation was accepted as there were a few hundred thousand dollars at stake.

Despite my experience from the previous day, and still looking for a positive outcome, I pulled up to the designated restaurant - hoping it wasn't his. After finding the customer, we sat down at a table. His first remark was that he would be unable to pay me. But then smiling, he pushed a check across the table for the full amount on his account stating that due to my visit, he renewed his efforts to collect from his customers. By contrast, this meal turned out to be a pleasant one. At the conclusion, the contractor swore that if there were ever any future issues, he would communicate with me and not ignore my phone calls.Years later, that customer still jokes with me saying, "If I ever see a phone call from area code 801, I make sure to always pick up the phone."

Certainly there were a few moments during that trip, that I doubted the time and expense would be productive. As it turned out, in the 1st situation, the Vice-President did get us paid in full before becoming a customer under his own company name. In the 2nd situation, the delinquent customer not only paid his account in full, but has remained a good and loyal customer ever since.

In credit management, with the different economic cycles, there is a continual challenge of how to best utilize time and resources. For that reason, some may tend to think the internet is omniscient. Others, through experiences like these, are convinced that many benefits can be derived from personal visits to customers that would not have occurred otherwise.

Some positive things that can be learned or accomplished with a personal visit if you do the following:

  1. Study the accounts of customers to be visited. Arm yourself with the appropriate questions as these visits should provide an insight to their organization, administration, operational size, and the quality and permanency of the office location/locations.
  2. View it as an opportunity to establish a face-to-face report and stepping stone in developing long-term relationships, even friendships. Like one company executive thoughtfully said, "I would rather pay someone I like than someone I dislike due to the way he/she treats me or my staff."
  3. Seek honest feedback. Not all visits should be confined to struggling customers. For those customers that are struggling as well as those that are not, ask for feedback about your business relationship and for any suggestions on ways to improve your service. Regardless if there are issues or not, customers tend to loosen up a bit and are less defensive if he/she feels you are making an effort to understand their concerns.
  4. Listen and observe for what is said and the body language that is displayed. When only phone calls or emails are the sources of communication, it is much easier to ignore, mask, or to procrastinate a resolution of issues. Your eyes can gather a lot of information.
  5. Take advantage of the face to face meetings by being prepared to ask the tough questions. Personal visits have a greater psychological impact on customers because they realize you have made much more of an effort to see them versus just making a phone call.
  6. Look for opportunities to enhance existing relationships. Be positive when it is possible. Express a few factors about the business relationship with them that are beneficial.
  7. Try to build trust with more than just the customer. By making a customer visit with your Sales Rep, it is an excellent way to have that person observe your professional manner with customers.
  8. Contact others within an organization. When visiting large companies or entities with your Sales Rep, you may initially meet with buyers or others that you may not speak with normally. Before concluding your visit, be sure to call on the C.F.O. or the A.P. or Credit Manager and pick up a business card. Those face-to-face introductions will pay huge dividends when future issues arise.
  9. Recap your visit. After leaving a customers office, be sure to make a written note or a Visitor Assessment. The note can detail items ranging from office conditions, inventory, cash flow, and the names and titles of those you met. These details, while fresh in your mind, will be useful in the future, to you, your team, and to others that may follow you and a chance to weigh the value of your visit.