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Keys to Communication

April 1, 2012
Selling is hard enough. Don't complicate matters by communicating poorly with customers.

After spending many years in sales, my nine years as the director of purchasing of a large national electrical contractor gave me the opportunity to see written communication from electrical distributors from a different perspective. Some of it was surprising. If it's true that the pen is mightier than the sword, make sure your letters, e-mails or proposals don't make you fall on yours.

You don't have to become a purchasing agent to see things from a different perspective. As consumers, we all receive nice notes from companies with whom we have done business. Like me, you may have also received a note or two that made you scratch your head, wondering how a company can be so poor at customer relations. My wife and I just had that experience. Since we live in an area that has hard water, we have bottled water delivered on a monthly basis. There have been times that we forgot to put the empties on our front porch for pickup and recycling and had to remember to put them out the following month. This week, the delivery man left a note that said, “I can't keep picking up this many bottles from you. I've left messages and notices on this matter. Thank You!”

I can understand the delivery person's frustration. He has a point and a valid message, but as the face of his company to the customer, he also has the responsibility to be diplomatic and maintain good customer relations. Two days later, we signed a contract with a different company to install a new whole-house water filtration and purification system. We will notify the bottled water company to pick up all of their bottles and their dispenser once we have our water system in place. If it hadn't been for the tone of the note from the company's delivery person, we probably would have continued their service for years. We could have even called their company for a quote on the new water filtration system, but we didn't. We don't want to deal with them. As an electrical distributor, you may know that the customers you lose usually don't call to tell you they are going elsewhere.

Remember your own personal experiences when involved in any sort of written communication with customers. Be conscious of your tone and make sure your written word expresses not only the basic message, but that it conveys the spirit and attitude that you want the customer to perceive. Here are a few other tips on doing it right when you write.

E-mail Rules

I won't try to address all of the rules associated with sending e-mail, as there's plenty of generic information available on issues such as e-mail etiquette or legal aspects. However, several issues related to business are worth of emphasizing.

Take your time in sending an e-mail message

Don't type in haste or in anger, and never send anything that you would not mind being forwarded to unknown recipients. And be certain the spelling and grammar are correct. Don't capitalize all letters, or “shout.” It reflects on you.

Keep it simple

Always provide a “Subject” line that informs your customer on what the basic message concerns. Don't just type in “Hi!” or “Your request.” During the course of business, I always kept e-mails in file folders, according to subject. The subject may have been a particular project bid, or annual “blanket” bid, or a resolution to an outstanding problem. Make sure your customer can quickly and easily find your e-mail in the future.

Double check your attachments prior to sending

Frequently, I received attachments such as proposals or spreadsheets that could not be opened. Prior to sending an important attachment to a customer, you may want to send it either to yourself, or another person in your organization to make sure it opens properly for the customer.


While working as director of purchasing, I was surprised at the mistakes and blunders distributors would make when providing a proposal or presentation to my company. When the requests for proposal were sent out to our supplier, they always included very specific requests concerning the information desired and the format in which it was to be supplied. Following are some of the more common errors we encountered.


When a contractor or industrial company requests a bid or proposal, it's usually requested in a specific format, such as Excel, Word or a particular software system. This is usually to accommodate a simple and speedy way to compare two or more different proposals. Very often, I received proposals back in a format other than the one requested, with no explanation. Needless to say, this put sender at a decided disadvantage. Always submit a bid in the format and manner in which it is requested and discuss any questions or concerns with the customer ahead of time.


Proposals or bids often came to me with extra columns added by the vendor. Sometimes it was a “Customer #” column, with my company's customer number. Sometimes it was a “Suffix” column. There were times that it was a column heading that only the supplier could identify. When extra columns were added, or even eliminated, the proposal could not be merged into a master file to compare bids. Take the time to submit the bid proposal as requested. If you have issues or concerns, discuss them with your customer prior to the date the bid is due.


Remember to always quote material and supplies in the unit of measure requested by the customer. Generally, customers will probably want material quoted in the unit of measure it would normally be billed at, such as “each,” “per hundred,” or “per thousand feet.” On occasion, suppliers would ignore the request and provide a bid priced “each” on every item.

Identify your proposal

The most shocking, and frankly funniest error in proposal submission usually occurred at least once a year. We would receive proposals in very nice binders, with all of the prerequisite graphics — I'm sure you know what I mean and have seen “the handshake” graphic that everybody uses. The proposal binders were colorful and extensive, with paragraphs about their service and inventory. Pages were devoted to the experience of the personnel and the great lines they handled. The only thing missing on the binder was who it was from, their address and their phone number. As amazing as it may sound, we sometimes had to identify a proposal by process of elimination, or holding it up and asking various suppliers if it was from them. Make sure your company information, logo and contact information is always on every written bid, binder, or electronic file of any kind, before you provide it to your customer.

You aren't just selling when you are in front of your customer. You are selling and making a good impression — or a bad impression — every time you communicate with them.

Terry Sater has 26 years of experience in electrical distribution sales and management, including six years in outside sales and 20 years as a general sales manager and as a manager at the branch, district and regional level. He also was director of purchasing for a large national electrical contractor for nine years and is a past-chairman of the Electrical Board of Missouri and Illinois. He has written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Investors Business Daily and Chronwatch. Sater can be reached [email protected].