Lesson #1 – Speak Your Customers’ Language

My father’s business was a small sheet metal fabrication shop. The majority of what we produced was custom based on drawings we would receive from our customers. Over the years, we had built a strong base in serving the transformer industry. Our ability to make short runs at a low cost matched well with the industry’s need for custom brackets and enclosures in low quantities.

One exception to our custom focus was a line of electrical enclosures we made. It started as a custom collaboration with one customer, but after seeing there was a market for them, we started offering the enclosures as a standard, stocked product to everyone.

As a sheet metal fabricator, we described the enclosures using the same specifications we would get for custom jobs. It was all about dimensions and specifications. Whenever a new customer called, there had to be a long conversation as the buyer calculated their size of the transformer and I searched to determine which box was right for his need.

One day, the customer whom we had originally collaborated with called to place an order. Dave was a talkative fellow and he was going on about how he had gotten a large order for some three phase transformers. He said his next call was going to be to order more 1.5″ EI laminations [these serve the base for some transformers].

I said, “Dave, are those standard laminations for the entire industry?”

He said, “Oh yeah, everybody uses the same ones.”

I queried, “Are the enclosures you designed with us built around those lamination sizes?”

He said, “Of course, the 13″ x 13″ x 15″ is perfect for 1.5″ lams.”

Dave quickly walked me through our entire line of enclosures and how they matched up to the different sizes of lamination.

My entire paradigm changed. I had been given a new language to speak to my customers in. I could ask them what they were using in their language and tell them exactly which of my products would work perfect for them.

Speaking the same language led to all sorts of things. We found that customers were drilling holes to make the enclosures work in some cases. That led to us redesigning each cabinet to meet a wider range of needs.

We found one cabinet couldn’t support enough weight and that customers were adding steel angle to reinforce it themselves. We scrapped the case and came up with a whole new design.

The most important thing it led to was a doubling of the number of customers that used our enclosures and doubling of the number of units we sold.

We went from being another sheet metal fabricator to a partner in our customers’ supply chains.