I recently had to spend a few days in El Paso, TX, and because I had forgotten my cell phone at home and felt a bit disconnected, I finally (after all these years) decided to go out and buy a laptop PC (I use a desktop Mac at home). So I left my motel room and went to a nearby Office Depot and found a computer that I liked. But when I asked about the salesperson, I was told that I’d have to see “John.” And after a half hour (there were five of us looking for John), I finally gave up and went over to a nearby CompUSA.

Well, CompUSA had the same problem - many customers and no salespeople. So I went next door to Best Buy, where they had an excellent selection of laptop PCs and three salespeople who were just swamped with customers (on a day in mid-February when the stock market had bottomed out because of “consumer jitters”). After waiting for most of an hour, I finally snagged a person who could help me finish my purchase.

We went over to one product that I liked, but he said that it was out of stock. So I pointed out my second choice, which he said was out of stock, too. Finally I asked, “Well, what do you have IN STOCK?” And he replied, “We just have one of these right here in stock!”

He was kidding, right? Or did I misunderstand him? He had just one laptop PC in stock out of dozens? And dozens of interested customers???!!! No wonder the economy is failing! It doesn’t seem to be a case of customer jitters, but of retailer jitters, for they have reduced their sales forces and their stock to the point where nobody can buy anything! Is the same thing true in our business?

Why don’t you call one of your stores to see if a live helpful voice actually answers the phone? If you call around you will realize how automated and customer-unfriendly many of us have become. And then, do we really have what our customers are asking for in stock, or are we following the trend of jittery retail stores and trying to sell from empty wagons?

Although I know that there are many good reasons for a flagging economy, I often feel that we are the self-fulfilling reasons for it. Because when our telephone answering systems start sounding like the “helpful” automated voices at our local bank, and no one “live” answers when we contact the orders and parts departments, and we have cautiously reduced our stocks to the point where our customers find that they are wasting their time coming into our stores, then we aren’t the victims of a sagging economy, we are part of the problem. And at what point do we transfer our service questions to someone in India or China?

Although I realize that HVACR supply houses are not famous for their advertising, the first expenses cut in hard times are always for those things that will improve our business: advertising, dealer meetings, incentives, trips and the like. Yet good sense tells us that when business is slowing, it’s time to start doing something positive! In fact, the companies that are wise enough to use hard times to grow their markets are always the ones that succeed in the long run. So no matter what the analysts say, this too will pass - and we will be the ones that survive, if we keep our good business sense.