We have talked a lot in this column about how board shops should treat their customers. How they should try to get to know their customers and their needs. So now let’s switch things around and talk about how customers should treat board shops, how they should work with board shops to get the best products and the best performances out of them.
For years now we have been talking about the new way of doing business. We have discussed things like what I call the “gray market” where companies like to buy their PCBs on line without ever having to talk to anyone, which by the way I consider the ultimate step in the commoditizing of the printed circuit board as a product. The trend in the electronics market has been to trivialize the circuit board to the point where the technology is considered pedestrian, repeatable and in some cases not even worthy of its own ITAR protection.
Companies can buy boards off web sites with a computer and a credit card without ever having to talk to anyone.
The sales people I work with find themselves overwhelmed with frustration caught between a rock and a hard place with their management whipping (yours truly included) them to get out there and visit those customers. Meet with them face to face; while those wily customers do everything they can to make sure that doesn’t ever happen, putting up barriers made of anything they can imagine to keep those sales people from seeing them face to face and in person. And that’s just the buyer, forget the chance of ever seeing anyone from the rest of the project team.
In short the relationship between the board shops and their customers is now virtually (no pun intended) non-existent.
And that spells trouble. Big trouble. All business is about people, people talking to each other, people understanding each other and yes people caring about each other. And now that has been lost. People are not talking to each other…pretty much never.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us to where we are today when we have the biggest gap between the people who design and engineer the end product and the people who build the boards that go into that product so that now the people building the board have nothing more to go on than what they are asked to build actually; just what is in front of them. They are operating in a vacuum.
In the old days, back in the days before the internet these people used to talk to one another. The customer’s project team would visit the board house or vice versa or both and then they would discuss the project. Then the customer would talk about the project in detail with her vendor. He would explain what they were doing, she would explain why the boards needed to be the way they needed to be and make sure that the people building the board understood why the board needed to be the way it needed to be. In these meetings the board guys would get a good understanding of what their boards were going into and why certain parameters were extremely critical. They would be exposed to the whole picture to the point where the customer’s call outs would make sense to them. And yes often around that meeting table ideas would be exchanged. The board guys could and did come up with suggestions and improvements for making the board a more effective component of the end product as well as more easily manufacturable and yes often, surprisingly often, less expensive.
And then through this process another thing would happen. The teams, the customers and the fabricators would bond, they would start becoming one team, real partners to the point that they were all working on the same project with the same goal in mind, the success of that project. They would become brothers and sisters in arms working for one common goal. This of course would cause them to be open and honest with another. People from both sides of the relationship would get to know each other. The company to company relationship would far exceed the buyer to salesperson only relationship (if you want to call it that) we have today. The teams would get to know each other all of them from engineers to the quality people to program managers they would work on the project together. If the boards were particularly difficult and the shop was having a hard time building them; their customer, their partner would send their team in and they would work side by side solving the problems and thus successfully producing good boards…together….as a team.
Now the irony is that today our end products are more sophisticated than ever. The PCBs to go into those products are more complicated than ever but now we have no partnerships. People in both companies seldom if ever talk to each other never mind actually meet. This has got to change. We have to go back to those pre-internet days where people met, discussed, came up with common solutions and goals, got to know and trust each other and work together building the products of tomorrow. As an old PCB guy I am looking right at you our customers right now and saying clearly and in plain English. “Dear customers we can’t do it without you. Come and visit us, Let us visit you, come and get to know us, come on let’s work together on making your products better than they have ever been.”
Stay tuned as in future columns we’ll talk about the specific steps we have to take to develop those partnership; steps that will make both of us better together than we can ever hope to be apart, the way things are going now. So check in with me next week and we’ll go there…together. It’s only common sense.