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I recently gained an order from a new customer for 10 items. We back ordered four of the ten. My customer is quite upset with me and my company's purchasing agents. Our relationship is strained because of someone in my company's poor performance. What would you do?

by Dave Kahle

Ah. The proverbial "backorder" problem. What would we talk about if we couldn't complain about backorders?

First, let's recognize that the problem is as old as the job of the salesperson, and we will have to deal with this problem until the day we retire. The problem is a result of conflicting pressures. On one hand, your company only has so much money and space, and just can't buy and hold or produce everything in the hopes that someone somewhere will eventually buy it. As a salesperson, however, you want everything available instantly. So someone is always going to be disappointed. Throw in the fact the customer probably doesn't want to pay anything but the lowest possible price for the product, and you can see that there is an inherent tension here. If the customer would be willing to pay twice as much for the product, you company could afford to build huge inventories. But, since that is unlikely to happen, your company needs to control its investment inventory so that the company has a chance of making money. In other words, you are always going to have some backorders!

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Ok. So what do you do about them? The first thing is to prevent them with clear communication and appropriate expectations. Don't assume that because you backordered a customer that means that your colleagues and uncaring or incompetent. That rarely is the case.

For example, if your company has been routinely selling about 100 of a certain item each month, and you bring in a new customer with an order for 20, it's unreasonable for you to expect that not to cause someone some problem. The sudden increase in demand from 100 to 120, without any prior notice, will probably mean that someone is going to get backordered.

The problem wasn't the poor job your purchasing colleagues did; it was the sudden increase in demand brought on by your new order. Further, if you promised the customer immediate delivery on an item he is ordering for the first time, you probably created unreasonable expectations in your customer's mind, and promised something that you could not really deliver.

It would have been more reasonable to have promised the customer a two or three week delivery on the first order, and to have informed your purchasing person of the coming increase in demand.

Many backorder problems can be prevented by using these two practices: 1) good communication with your purchasing people, and 2) reasonable expectations to the customer.

But what do you do if you are consistently plagued with a quantity of backorders that seem unwarranted? Go first to your purchasing people with respectful inquiries and a detailed description of the problem. No vague generalities or "sales person's talk" here. Be detailed and specific with the problems and the consequences of those problems.

If you don't get satisfaction, then bring the problem, in the same respectful and detailed fashion, to your manager.

Finally, if you still don't see positive improvements, and if the backorder problems continue to jeopardize your ability to service your customers, then at some point you need to consider whether your continued employment with this company is the wisest choice for you.

Dave Kahle has trained tens of thousands of B2B salespeople, sales managers and business owners to be more effective in the 21st Century economy. He's authored nine books, and presented in 47 states and seven countries. To access Dave's training, insights and tools online, visit The Sales Resource Center. Visit www.davekahle.com to check out a seminar near you.

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