Friday, June 25, 2010

Anger Management Wins in the End

As a small business owner, you will quickly realize that time management is incredibly important. Anything that saves a little time is probably worth it, depending, of course, on the cost. Will I pay my accountant to do my payroll for me? No, because we have four employees and I can do it myself for free in about 30 minutes… If we had 60 employees, paying someone to do it would be wise, if the alternative is not seeing your kids for a couple of evenings every time payroll is due (every two weeks for us).

I’m currently involved in a battle with a vendor, and I’ll tell you right up front that it is NOT cost effective. The dispute is over $66. That’s it… Less than our dumpster bill for a month, less than a trip to the movies for my family. I will admit that the most efficient thing to do would be to pay the 66 dollars and have this go away in the minute or two it takes to complete an on-line bill payment. The accounting department of this vendor made me angry, though, so I’m going the distance. From a time management perspective, or better yet, a “value of my time” perspective, this is silly and inefficient. From a self-satisfaction perspective, I’ll go to my grave before I cough up $66 to this vendor.

We utilized this vendor for over two years, and I’m not sure why exactly. The cost for their product was nearly double what it would take to go purchase the exact same product from one of their retail locations. Getting bi-weekly deliveries is how we set it up from the start, and we continued with that for a very long time, even though it was not cost effective, in retrospect. It saved us about an hour per week of our time, but it cost us an extra $240 per month. That means we were effectively paying $55 per hour for delivery. Over two years, it cost us an extra $5700!! If (or should I say when) we have a commercial freezer or refrigerator fail and have to replace it, that $5700 will come to mind, I am sure… If you look at any given aspect of your small business, $55 does not seem important. $5700 will grab your attention pretty quickly, though. Take a look at what you are doing and see if you can make sensible improvements, without a huge investment of your time. The weekly payoff may not seem like much, but over a number of months, the value quickly becomes more apparent, and not so trivial.

OK, back to the issue at hand…
After we got smart and stopped using their services, they sent us a generic late notice for $66. I called them to determine what was late, and requested a specific invoice number. She gave me an invoice number, which I was able to provide proof of payment for. She then gave me a different invoice number, which I also had proof of payment for. Several more episodes like that, and she started to get frustrated. After nearly two hours on the phone, she stated she didn’t have time for this. I indicated that I also did not have time for this, and that I also had proof of payment for every scenario she threw at me. She said her records were not accurate enough to provide a specific invoice number, but she was quite sure we owed them $66. I told her that my records were extremely accurate, and that I was quite sure that I did not owe them any money. At this point, she asked me to just pay the late notice. I explained that if they provide me an invoice that I could not provide proof of payment for, then I would gladly pay the late notice. I asked her to research it on their end, get their documentation in order, and then notify me of the actual problem.

Several weeks went by, and I did not hear from them. I assumed they straightened out their records and determined that I did not owe them any money. Well, you know what they say about assuming… The next correspondence I received was a notice from a collection agency for $66. Arrrgggghhh! That really made me angry. I spent several hours altogether working with her, providing proof of payment for every random scenario she threw at me. Instead of getting her records in order, she just sent it to collections instead!! How unprofessional is that? I notified the collection agent of all that had transpired. As you can guess, they really don’t care. They just want you to pay up… We have had harassing phone calls from the collection agent for about six weeks now, and they are getting meaner and more disrespectful every time.

Today, I finally had enough. I once again called this vendor and asked to speak with an owner or general manager, and specifically stated I did not want to talk to customer service again, nor their accounting department (I’ve wasted a number of hours now dealing with them over several months). They played the phone system multiple-transfer-tactic, ending with a mis-happen disconnect after being on hold for five or ten minutes each time. I went through that three or four times. ULTIMATE FRUSTRATION!! I called back one last time and told the person who answered to get me a manager or my next call would be to the Better Business Bureau. That finally worked and they put an actual person on the phone, without hanging up on me again, or leaving me on indefinite HOLD.
As angry as I was by this point, I absolutely know that anger NEVER wins. You can be completely right and correct, but if you have an angry approach, you will not get anywhere. On the flipside, I also know you can be completely wrong, and people will work with you and compromise if you have a pleasant approach. This manager I spoke with promised to look into the issue, and said he would get back with my by the end of the day.
It is now 3:30pm, and I have not heard anything. I called this vendor again and immediately started receiving the run-around, multiple phone transfers, disconnects, long periods of being on hold, only to be told there were no managers in the office any longer. I recognized the voice as someone I had spoken to multiple times earlier today, told them who I was, and that I want to speak with the same manager again pronto. After being told there were no managers still in the office, this person said they would go and get him… 30 seconds later and I’m on the phone with the same person from earlier today!! Apparently, their standard operating procedure for customer service is the run-around, followed by an offer to connect you to someone’s voicemail. How do they even stay in business???
After a short conversation, with a positive and good attitude, even though that is not how I was feeling, this manager indicated he had pulled our file. The billing associate in charge of our file is on vacation, so he said that he would cancel the collections and close this issue without any further efforts being made on their part or on my part. He said there was a record in my file of our previous emails, proof of payments, and other conversations. He could not believe how much time had been wasted over a $62 discrepancy!! Even though I did not get the chance to prove I don’t owe them any money, he decided it was not worth any more time investment on anyone’s part…

So, I guess it is time for me to summarize this experience and provide some lessons learned.

1. Evaluate your business practices. If you can find areas of improvement without a significant increase in effort on your part, take them. Even if the weekly figures seem insignificant, realize it can have a huge cost savings over a year or two.

2. Keep your records clean and organized. I keep everything together for any given calendar month. I pay for just about everything via on-line bill pay. I can pull up scans of cleared checks, and I can pull up transaction confirmation numbers for any electronic transaction in seconds. Also, I have a “PAID” rubber stamp, and all invoices get marked with the date and amount paid at the time payment is made. There is never a question whether or not an invoice got paid. If it is stamped, then I know it is taken care of.

3. If you have a discrepancy with a vendor, your records will speak for themselves. If you can provide answers to their questions/accusations quickly and easily, that speaks volumes.

4. If you get angry, don’t show it. You can certainly be firm in your communications, but do not lose your temper. Regardless of whether you are right or wrong, if you lose your temper and speak to them in an unprofessional manner, you will lose. Finished… If you maintain your composure, then you have a better chance of getting somewhere, even though it might take awhile and cause you EXTREME FRUSTRATION.