Never assume customers understand when you fall short. You may want to believe they sympathize when you don't have enough help at the counter because of cut-backs, or that they will be patient when a call-in order isn't ready because you've been busy, or that they don't mind being placed on-hold for several minutes because everyone is on the phone.

While it would be nice if customers cut you some slack during these volatile times, the hard fact is that regardless of how the economy performs, customer expectations of how a distributor performs continue to escalate. In fact, the traditional perceptions of good customer service are becoming obsolete, as are the electrical distributors that cling to business models from the 1970s.

While some distributors may fail during this economic upheaval, others will emerge stronger than before. They will see opportunities to turn loyal customers into advocates and to gain market share from weaker competitors. If that stronger distributor is you, there are a number of things you know you must do. For starters, ramp up your knowledge of your customers and your industry, assess your company's strengths and flaws and be aware of competitors' competencies. On the other hand there are a number of things you must avoid altogether. With that in mind, here are seven common-sense ideas to guide you through this turbulent business landscape.

Never Better

Never think, “Our customers are different.”

One of the biggest mistakes distributors make is buying into the idea that customers in the electrical wholesale business are somehow different from customers in the retail world, or that business-to-business (B2B) customers are different from business-to-consumer (B2C). The contractor at your counter today will buy something from a retailer this week. He may take his truck in for an oil change and enjoy complimentary cookies and beverages while relaxing in a comfortable waiting room. He might take his five-year-old for ice cream where an animated server behind the counter turns a double-dip cone into a juggling act worthy of a Disney entertainer. When your store is closed, he'll go to a DIY and a knowledgeable greeter will eagerly welcome him inside. Retailers like Starbucks, Apple and Amazon establish the expectations of today's customers. These expectations aren't lowered just because a customer is dealing with a wholesaler.

Never engage in a price war

Identify brands that still command and get full price and stock according to customer demand. Focus on keeping margins healthy and avoid the, “How cheap do we have to be to get this order?” mentality. Have a little faith in your own reputation as a solution provider.

Never mention the “R” word

It's easy to blame anything that goes wrong on current economic conditions. It's easy to commiserate with customers and share headlines from the twitchy news people who seem committed to spreading fear. On CNN, Warren Buffet pointed out, “Fear is very contagious. You can get fearful in five minutes, but you don't get confident in five minutes.” Do you really want to make your customers afraid to buy? Be confident, not fearful.

Never promise exceptional service

“The customer is king.” “Best service in town.” “Service after the sale.” If your customers even hear you make these vapid claims and clichés, they probably won't believe you. Instead, offer facts that can be quantified and substantiated. “Our fill rates are 95 percent.” “Deliveries in town, two hours, guaranteed.” “On call 24 hours a day.” Never make a claim you can't substantiate. Facts, statistics and specs are more believable than broad sweeping generalities.

Never share internal problems

The latest report I heard about a certain distributor's lay-offs came from one of its customers. When I asked a distributor representative, he verified the exact information that the customer had told me. The only reason the customer knew was because someone at the local branch had told him. Customers talk to each other. Sharing negative information about your company with one customer can instill panic in your entire account base.

Never preach what you don't practice

Persuading your customer to buy the latest green product is difficult when you're burning last century's F40s in the ceiling of your sales counter. Customers receive conflicting signals when you're selling recycling containers at the sales counter and throwing old ballasts in the dumpster. If you're going to target the green market, you have to practice sustainability within your own business. And the same goes for any market you want to penetrate. Use the products you're promoting.

Never assume your customer's loyalty

Your most loyal customers are typically your most profitable, especially when you consider lifetime value. They're most likely to refer other customers to you, increase spending as they grow, and provide an invaluable resource of information. Find out why they buy from you and what you can do to reward their loyalty. Consultant Clive Humby says, “Customer loyalty isn't about customers being loyal to you. It's about you being loyal to your customers. You earn loyalty by giving it.”

Up Where the Air is Thin

Companies that heed these caveats will discover a business landscape that is a more rewarding, less competitive place to be. Instead of focusing inside the business and making knee-jerk responses to economic blips, strategic planning will be aimed outward, toward meeting customers' needs and finding new ways to gain market share.

Finally, here's one more “never” with which you're already familiar. It's from an unlikely individual who struggled as a young man to overcome a severe speech impediment. He grew up to become a knight and serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And Winston Churchill inspired a nation during its darkest hour when he spoke the words, “Never, never, never, never, give up.”

The author is the founder of High Voltage Performance, a consulting firm that specializes in designing customer experiences for the industrial marketplace. Dandridge has 25 years' experience in electrical wholesale distribution and authored the book, Business Turnaround. He is available for speaking engagements and can be contacted by phone at (254) 624-6299 or by email at md@theperformancepro.com. Read more about his idea for Customer Experience Architecture at www.highvoltageperformance.com and check out his blog at www.businessturnaround.blogs.com.