I was recently contacted by an organization that needed help putting together a list of possible service providers in the waste and recycling industry to manage a mixed waste stream. (For confidentiality reasons I can’t divulge the organization’s name, but it was a commercial office paper-type of waste, with some unique properties.)
Normally I would have passed along the name of a few consultants and let them put together the list, but I decided to do it myself, as I could think of quite a few options off the top of my head, and thought it would be interesting to learn what companies in Canada can provide solutions for the particular waste this organization generates.
The organization, it should be noted, currently landfills its waste and wishes to divert as much as possible from landfill, including any kind of option from recycling to composting to waste-to-energy.
Over a period of a week or so, I fit in calls and email queries with the rest of my work flow, which was reasonable at that time as I was between magazine deadlines. In the end I came up with a list of a dozen or so companies that could potentially provide solutions to this organization.
This little exercise was a real eye-opener for me! I used to assume that government agencies are slow to respond to requests, and are bureaucratic, and that the private sector is comprised of sleek and efficient entities, driven by the profit motive to quickly respond to new business opportunities.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Never again will I assume that stodginess and sloth-like speed and general disorganization is the exclusive purview of the public sector, which I’ve started to think might actually be more quick to respond than many private companies, or publicly traded ones — at least in the waste and recycling sector.
I won’t name and names, of course, but if I did you’d be shocked. Here are some of the stupid mistakes, or simply “problems,” that companies make that turn away new business, that I encountered from my attempt to help an organization find potential service providers.
Remember, I was not myself soliciting business — I simply wanted to provide the organization with the correct contact details so that it could send out a further information request. And remember, this was a potentially lucrative piece of new business, that would go on for years and years to whomever secured the contract.
1. PHONE SYSTEMS: Many (and I mean MANY) companies have a totally off-putting and dysfunctional voicemail system that answers their main phone number. Very often there is simply NO WAY to reach a live human being; a very generic outgoing message asks the caller whether or not they know the extension of the person they’re trying to reach, then gives them the option of finding the extensions via an automated directory.
But, if we’re talking about NEW BUSINESS, of course I don’t know yet whom I need to talk to, so this option is useless to me. Many companies’ voicemails then send you into a “general delivery” voicemail box that offers zero confidence that your message will be picked up, and by whom.
Interestingly, with the instances where I had to leave a message in a general delivery voicemail box, I made a note of when I left the message, so I could track how long it would take for someone to get back to me. Let me add that the messages I left were detailed, and made it very clear that I was calling to learn who the appropriate person is to send a proposal for a potentially lucrative new contract — the kind of thing that should get people jumping, right?
So how long do you think it took for me to hear back from most of the companies? A day? Two days? A week? How about… NEVER! Yes, there were a number of companies that simply NEVER called me back, and never emailed me at the email address I also provided.
In one case, a very significant industry player finally got back to me after about a month, after the window of opportunity had expired.
2. RECEPTION STAFF: Some companies have very off-putting, poorly trained staff that answer the phones. Some sounded like official “receptionists” and one would think such a person would be polite, helpful, and guide me to the right person to talk to.
One would be wrong!
In many instances I spoke to receptionists who spoke to me as if I was an unwanted interruption to whatever more important business they were attending to — more important things, I imagine, than helping their company potentially win a lucrative long-term waste management contract.(!)
Some didn’t seem to have any idea who the correct management person was inside their company to receive proposals for new business. Some took messages and I never heard back, and then repeatedly had to call back and practically beg for information.
Some knew the name of a person, but had no idea what their email address was, or couldn’t give me an extension or cell number. One receptionist was especially snippy with me; she had told me of the name of a person to whom I should talk, but then said he was away and wouldn’t likely be checking his phone messages that day. I asked for his email address, and she told me that was confidential and she couldn’t pass it along to me. I checked the company website and most of the senior management, including the company President & CEO, were on the website. I deduced the person’s email myself, as all of them on the website were in the same format, and included the person’s first initial and last name, before the ”@” sign.
So much for confidentiality.
I was very persistent, but there were some companies that seemed to offer viable and interesting waste diversion technologies that I simply gave up on, so difficult it was to penetrate their useless voicemail and reception systems.
3. DISINTERESTED SALES STAFF: In some companies I did finally manage to get through to a sales person (yippee!) — in more than one instance people I knew personally from industry trade shows, etc. I told them very clearly what the project was about, why it was potentially an important contract to try to win, and that I was planning to add their company to the prospect list; I just needed the name and contact info of the right person.
You’d think a “sales” person would get all over that, wouldn’t you? Again, you be surprised how often I’d never hear back from the person, or would have to call repeatedly and get nowhere.
After a while I felt like I was trying to sell THEM something, and was astonished that companies that live and die by winning new service contracts, or opportunities to apply their technology, were indifferent to my entreaties. I started to wonder how it is that our economy functions at all!
4. WEBSITES FROM HELL: For my job I often visit company websites to glean certain kinds of information from them, but until I went through this exercise — trying to get the names and contact info of the right person in each company — I never realized how awful many websites are, including some from major publicly traded companies.
Some companies seem to have bought into the idea from their IT staff that they should not provide email addresses of important staff, no doubt to avoid web “spiders” and various forms of spam. But that’s no excuse for not providing them in some kind of HTML format where a viewer can at least view the email address, without it being a hot link.
In any case, there are many ways that companies can do a decent job letting an interested party learn, without having to make a lot of phone calls, who to contact when offering the company new business.
A common thing I encountered, and one that I hate the most, is those “contact us forms” that many companies put on their contact page, with no other information. This is the kind of thing where I enter my name and contact info, and fill in some sort of generic field stating the purpose of my email. This is just terrible for business! It’s totally one-sided and is useless if there’s anything urgent about my need to contact your company!
At a minimum, the Contact page of a website should include the full address of the head office, and a mailing address (if different) and the names of key staff who would likely be contacted for new business. If you only provide an “info@…” generic email address, at least state how often this email in box is checked (and then make sure someone actually checks it!).
And I believe every company should have a main telephone number on its website (prominently displayed, not in some tiny typeface and at the bottom of the page). In fact, this phone number should probably be at the top of every web page! And again, whoever answers the phone should be trained to be very helpful; if the number leads to some kind of voicemail, the outgoing message should make a caller feel confident that the messages are checked regularly (by which I mean, be specific, as in: “This voicemail is checked every hour during regular business hours” or something like that).
Another surprising problem I encountered was with some major companies that have national and international divisions: their websites may list all the little offices and service sites, but make it difficult to contact the right person at the head office. There were some companies with hundreds of service sites, but no way to get in touch with someone “in charge.” In some cases the part of the website that covers the head office is designed only for the investment community, and offers links to the company’s profile on Wall Street, but (again) no contact info for decision makers who might respond to opportunities for new business.
I could go on and on about the shortcomings of company websites, but it’s probably best to just observe that most appear to have been designed by IT staff with little grasp of marketing and customer service (a common problem, because this is not their area of expertise). It’s crucial that sales and marketing staff from companies, and also senior executives, sit down together in a meeting room in front of a monitor and pretend together that they’re a new customer visiting their company website. Forget for a moment that you already know your business — what do you really learn about your business (quickly) when viewing the site? And, most importantly, if you want to contact the company for new business, is it really easy to find out who to contact, and how? (If not, change the site! This small detail could be costing your company thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in new opportunities.)
5. FAILING TO RESPOND: After I made a lot of effort, because I’m persistent, to create a list of companies with the correct contact people, it was interesting to see that only very few ever responded to the request for information that the organization put out. Now you might think that’s because the contract didn’t interest them, but I’m very sure that in most cases the information never got to the right person, at least not in a timely manner, and that person never had conveyed to them the importance of the opportunity. Such a conclusion would be highly consistent with all the problems mentioned above.
As bad, of the companies that did respond, I was struck by how “off spec” their replies were, not only missing deadlines but not really addressing the questions properly that were presented (very clearly) in the information request. Not only were some of the replies vague, the companies did nothing to “sell” the customer on the solutions they offer and the benefits of choosing their system or strategy over that of a competitor.
I won’t go into detail, other than to say most of the replies were simply “lame.”
I was also struck by the fact that some companies that I felt very confident about, that I knew had interesting waste diversion solutions to offer this organization, never responded at all, not even to learn more about the contract. I imagine the owners of those companies, or the shareholders, would be very disappointed by the poor performance of their staff in “dropping the ball” on a potentially lucrative new long-term client. But no one will ever know (I’m certainly not squealing) because it will all be “lost in the ether” of these companies’ inept system for attracting and responding to new business.
Ironically, these same companies may spend huge amounts of money attending trade shows, mailing out brochures, or otherwise attempting to attract new customers; meanwhile, they’re missing out on business that is trying to find THEM simply because there’s no easy and convenient way for a new customer to find the right person in their organization and be able to contact them! (Which would cost, effectively, nothing!)
So there you have it, my little report on what I learned trying to put an organization with a lucrative long-term contract in touch with potential service providers. It was very eye-opening and disappointing. Do yourself a favor and make sure your company is not guilty of the oversights listed above. And, as a final comment, public sector organizations should also check for similar problems.