The Customer Fulfillment Process
Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas
In the 1980’s there was no one in the country music business bigger than Jim Halsey. An Independence native, Halsey grew up in the family department store business. After having him visit my class once, in subsequent conversations with him and reading the words in his book “Starmaker”, I can see how he developed an entrepreneurial mindset as he experienced the family business. I believe it was this mindset that made him so successful in the music business. He says, “Both sides should benefit from a contract.” He believes it and the hundreds of contracts in his archive would bear this out.
A Contract is a Meeting of the Minds
A few, well ok, several years ago when I attended Garden City Community College, our business law teacher, Mr. Ruggles, told us two things that I remember often even today. One was “Don’t travel without money.” The second, “A contract is a meeting of the minds, whether written or not.” He said a contract represented someone in need of something and someone with a means of fulfilling that need, problem and solution. That is the basis of the customer fulfillment process. The contract should contain a description of the problem to be solved, the timeline during which it will be solved and the amount of compensation that is to go to the party solving the problem, i.e., the seller, and the timeline or terms for which the payment will be made. When the parties agree and everyone does what they say they will do, a successful contract is executed, and a successful customer fulfillment process occurs.
Six Steps of the Process
The fulfillment process can be thought of in these steps: 1. Solicitation, sometimes in the form of some kind of advertising information about a service or product and its ability to solve a problem for you that you may not have even realized you had. 2. Inquiry, sometimes called request for quote or request for proposal. In its simplest form, I might walk into a hardware store and say that I’m looking for a certain tool. 3. Offer, sometimes called quote or proposal, is the potential seller’s reply to the inquiry. The hardware store clerk might say, “Here is the tool I have, and the price is $35.” Sometimes there is negotiation of what the price will be, and the offer should state when delivery will be made, or the solution is finished. The offer should include terms; how and when payment is due. 4. Response to either accept or reject the offer. “Ok, I’ll take it for $35.” 5. Delivery, the product or service is delivered, or taken in the timeframe specified in the “Offer” step. 6. Bill Presentation, when delivery has been made. The bill, i.e., invoice should show the total amount of the transaction, deduction of any deposit paid and the final amount due. Both buyer and seller should know what to expect during these six steps; this is the “meeting of the minds.” Communication is needed anytime there is a change in conditions requiring a change in the process. This way, the “meeting of the minds” can be maintained even during changing conditions.
Lack of “Meeting of the Minds” Leads to Confusion
It’s when buyer is thinking one thing and seller another that there can be problems. The severity of the resulting problems depends on how far into the process the “meeting of the minds” is compromised.
One time I made in 2. Inquiry of a recommended fence builder for about 450 feet of five-foot tall livestock fencing. He came out to look at the area where we wanted the fence. After telling me he could do the job, I asked him if he had a ballpark estimate of cost. He said “I have no idea. It depends on how many rocks we run into while setting the fence posts.” I said, “Well, how would I even know if I have enough money to complete the project?” He repeated the “I have no idea…” mantra. In this situation, there never was really a meeting of the minds so there wasn’t much harm done when I told him we couldn’t do business.
I recently received a 1. Solicitation from an ICC alumni and graduate of a solid Kansas business school. This was a service for the Fab Lab that I needed and ends up being a really cool solution. So, I made an inquiry asking how much to service would cost. We batted some emails back and forth about price and came to agreement. I expected to receive a 3. Offer from him confirming the price on which we’d agreed and the terms of payment he wanted. Instead, I received a PayPal Invoice (6. Bill Presentation), skipping 4. Response and jumping ahead of 5. Delivery. There were several surprises to me in this process. When I told him that people won’t expect to receive an invoice before the work is completed and that terms should be worked out in the 3. Offer step, he said he wasn’t sure how to do the process. Curiously, he must not have learned customer fulfillment process as part of his work in obtaining his business degree. We have it all worked out now and are in the middle of 5. Delivery.
Whether you enter the customer fulfillment process as a buyer (customer) or seller (vendor), keeping these five steps in mind and making sure to maintain a “meeting of the minds” throughout will help build better relationships and eliminate a lot of surprises and frustrations during the process.
Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org.