Archive for category Opinion

Better Relationships With Your PCB Vendors Will Yield Better Boards

dan-5We 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.

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Training The Youngsters: Show Them The Possibilities

There is no doubt there is a shortage of young people in our business. As we all get older, the challenge of finding young people to replace us is getting more severe. Last week in this column, we talked about finding young people in our own organizations and then nurturing them to become an integral part of our companies. So, I thought it only appropriate that this week we would talk about that nurturing process, training them to become not only viable, but outstanding members of our organizations.

The PCB is not a commodity and it has been a vital and important participant in the global innovation of electronics.

We must show them future. By that I mean show them the viability of our product; the past, the present and most importantly the future. Show them the value of the printed circuit board in the grand scheme of things. Point out that PCBs have taken us to the moon, they have made the computer age possible, they have made medical advancement possible, and yes, they have provided the very defense and safety of our country and the world. Show them some of the products that your specific customers are building. I still think back with great pride in knowing that I touched the PCBs the guided the Space shuttle and the PCBs that went to Mars on the Motorola Viking program. We have all been in a doctor’s or dentist’s office or in a hospital and seen our customers’ names all over the equipment that surrounds us, only to realize that our board are in the equipment. Even though so many of our customers try to commoditize our products, we all know better.

Teach them the entire process

For these young people to completely and understand our, it is important they know how they are built. This means more than just taking them on a plant tour to see the entire process. It also means having them spend some time in the shop. If they have been working in the shop already, chances are they only know their job, their part of the process. So, it’s important thy learn the entire process. The best way to do this is to have them spend time building a board themselves. Following it through the process and performing each step of that process. This will go a long way towards giving them an understanding of what it takes to build a printed circuit board. This gets even more important if the young person you’ve hired has never worked in our industry before, it will be time well spent.

Train them completely for their new position.

Whether they are going into sales or starting out in the drill room or being promoted from the drill room to a supervisory position, prepare and implement a complete and comprehensive training program. This program should not end too after a few weeks. A complete training program will have evolutionary stages of development along the way. Lay out an entire year’s development program. This will not only serve as a checkpoint to see how the person is doing but will also give you the opportunity to mentor the person along the way. Training is one area that has always been lacking in our industry and I believe it is the number one reason we are in the state are in today when it comes to the aging of our industry.

Show them the places they’ll go

Show them their future. Lay out a career path setting expectations for where they will be in one year, in three years, in five years. A young person has his entire future ahead of him, they only way you are going to keep him engaged is to show them that future, explaining to him in real detail the growth and earning possibilities he faces by investing his time and effort in our industry. Tell her about the earning power of a good mature engineer, or a passionate sales person. We should keep in mind, that our schools are not exactly lauding the advantages of working in manufacturing and the exciting possibilities that entails. Our kids are taught to be lawyers and doctors and accountants and teachers, they are never taught the possibilities of being involved in manufacturing, which is why when they do come to us it us, most of the time it’s just to have a job and a paycheck to put food on the table. They have no concept of the career that is possible and the earning potential that a career in manufacturing offers them. I can safely state that no young lady in high school ever said “when I grow up. I’m going to sell circuit boards!”

But to many of us, being in this business has provided opportunities far beyond our expectations. We have made a good and rewarding lives from this industry. But I can safely say that none of us at the age of sixteen ever said “When I grow up, I’m going to sell circuit boards” and heck, we turned out okay. Its only common sense.Dan 8

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Rethinking Our Approach To Rep Firms

When are PCB shops going to get it?

I send a lot of my time helping board shops with their rep issues. I spend a lot of time trying to convince these shops that they are going to have to change the way they handle their rep relationships and start treating them as partners rather than second hand citizens if they want this whole thing to work.

I am constantly amazed when the board fabricators I talk to tell me without batting an eye that they have the “best shop in the industry; that they have the best service in the industry and reps should be beating a path to their door for the ‘privilege’ of selling for them.”

I really get a kick out of the shop owners who tell me that “they are no worse than anyone else” and “that any rep should be delighted to sell for them.”

And then they go on to tell me that the reps they have not are all a bunch of “lazy bums” and if I could only find them the “right” reps to sell their terrific products everything would be okay.

When I ask them if they have a marketing plan or are doing any advertising? All I get is a loud snort and an impatient, “who needs that stuff? We don’t need any of that we just need the right reps.”

When I ask them if they have a program for managing the reps; pointing out that one of my partners offers a very successfully proven plan that will guarantee that their rep program will succeed they scoff and say, “we talk to our reps all the time and don’t need any of that.”

When I ask them if they are willing to give reps house accounts they refuse even before the words have time to pass my lips. “No way will we ever do that, they have to earn their accounts, they have to bring in new business and not even go near our current accounts.”

When I point out that it is better to serve an account locally than from three thousand miles away so they should give the reps these accounts, I still can’t budge them.

When I ask them if they would be willing to pay a small retainer or even a draw to get the reps started since it is a very expensive and long process to find new accounts, get the surveyed and qualified and get that first order and then wait another 60 days to get paid, they just about come through the phone roaring, “No way will we ever do that! We did that once and the reps screwed us!”

And here is the clincher…when I tell them I might have a pretty good rep in an area let’s say New England that I might be able to introduce to them if they want, they tell me, “Well we can’t really put in a rep in that territory because we already have a rep there but he isn’t doing anything for us right now.”

And when I ask why he isn’t doing anything and why don’t they try talking to him to get him going again, they tell me and get this, listen to this one; “well, we owe him a bunch of money and have not been able to pay it for a six months…. but he should still be trying to sell for us right?”

Okay, if you are a board shop owner and any of this scenarios sound familiar to you then good! Maybe you’ll get it one of these days. So I am going to make it easy and plain to understand:

If you see yourself in any of the above examples you need to know that reps are tired of working with your company and companies like yours.

They are sick and tired of being screwed by you. Your product is not always great and frankly neither is your service. It is not a great privilege to sell your products. And as the market gets tougher and tougher it is that much more difficult to represent you and near impossible to make any real money representing you.

Besides all of these pitfalls of representing a board shop there is always this other dilemma, the danger of being too successful and bringing in so much business that when your accounting department sees how much you owe them and are going to owe them when the next orders come in you think nothing of terminating them. Never mind the fact that reps are always at the bottom of the stack of things you have to pay and if you go out of business they are always at the top of the list of creditors who will never get paid!

Now do you get it! Those of you who continue to disrespect your reps and not want cooperate with them are not going to be able to sign them for much longer so you are going to have to find another way to sell your products.

For those of you who are willing to enter the 21st century of rep/principal relationship listen up”

You are going to have to treat your reps with the trust and courtesy that a true partner deserves. You are going to make sure that the relationship will be win/win and yes you are going to have to pay the piper and pay retainers or at least give them some accounts if you want to have them work for you.

That’s all there is to it…it’s not that hard. Its only common sense.

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Building Leaders

dan-6The hottest topic on the PCB circuit these days is the lack of young people in our industry. As the rest of us get older, it is finally occurring to us that there is no one following in our footsteps, there is no one there to fill our shoes, when we decide enough is enough.

Thinking about this the other day, I remember what it was like when I started in this so industry so many years ago. It was with a company called Maine Electronics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rockwell International. Originally, I was supposed to be an English teacher, but after about an hour of student teaching, I decided that honorable career that it was, teaching was not for me. So, then I had to decide what it was I was going to do to make a living if teaching was out.

Through a series of circumstances and coincidences and a long story best left form another day, I found myself hired at Maine Electronics as what was then called, a Program Coordinator, a fancy name for an expeditor. My job was to track and report the status of every single PCB in the programs I was handling. In those pre-computer days, taking status and tracking boards was all done annually by myself and seven other Program Coordinators. It was an interesting group. All of us were young, all of us were men of course, it was only much later that management realized that women could track and expedite boards as well as men could, better actually. We were all under twenty-four. And we all had some college, some of us had degrees but most did not yet. All of us with the same demographics politically and socially, which meant long hair and liberal politics which was ironic when you think that we were working on Minuteman missiles and F-11 bombers.

You can just image the fun we had chasing our boards all over the shop, and competing with one another to see who could get supervisors to work on their boards first. It was a time when our technology was respected enough that our customers were used to late dates and catch-back schedules.  We lived under a great deal of pressure but as always when looking back at hard times, today when we get together, we consider those the good old days.

I was fortunate to begin my career in a company what was one of the leading PCB producers in the world. A shop was run by very experienced PCB experts from either Rockwell Autonetics in Anaheim or left-overs from the previous company Maine Research which had been designed and built as the most advanced PCB facility in the world.  Just to give you an example we were building controlled impedance boards before people even knew there was such a thing.

But the point I want to make, is that we young people were trained every day of the week. Everything we did was a lesson for our future. Once we had been there a year or so they started grooming us for the next step in our career development. Some of us were destined to become process engineers, others were to become supervisors or Quality managers and a few of us where trained as sales people. In other words, from the very first day we were hired we were considered long-time members of the Rockwell family, and training us was considered an investment in the future of the company. Ur managers were tasked with starting all of us on the career path of our choice…within the company.

They were always working on the future of the company, with great intention. There was nothing haphazard about it.

And now, as we look back on the past twenty years how many of us have done that same thing? Not many of us, which is why we are in the dilemma we are in today. I daresay part of it is due to the arrogance of the boomer generation. We’ve always thought that we were the coolest generation with no regard or much respect, for that matter, for the generations that followed us. We thought we would live forever, so why bother looking back? We could not imagine a world without is and so we concentrated on the present with little interest in the future, especially a future we would not be part of.

Thus, here we are, a bunch of old gray men and a few better-looking women wondering how we are going to sustain our industry going forward, wondering who is going to carry the torch into the future.

But here is a reality check for you; it’s not really that we have had a shortage of young people in our shops because our companies actually do have some young people working in them. Take a walk around your shop, look around. Notice anything? Yes, that’s right there are young people there. They have been there all along, working in the plating department or the drill room or in shipping. Yes, they are there but we have not taken the time to notice them. We have not taken the time to talk to them, to get to know them, to find out what they are like, what they like to do when they’re not working. We need to sit down and talk to them and find out what their career aspirations are? We need to work with them, develop them just like those professionals at Rockwell did with me and my fellow Program Coordinators so many years ago. And then we must sit by their side and start working out their career path. Showing them that a career in the PCB business can be a good career. Demonstrating to them just how important our work is. Explaining to them what these little green cards go into and how they are changing the world.

We should make them believe that this is a good industry, an industry to be proud of and an industry that can provide a bright future for the person who is willing to work and to learn. And we should be willing to teach that person and help him or her to become a viable contributing member of our PCB community both today and in the future. It’s only common sense.

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Customers Still Deserve Your Respect

dan-5Times may have changed, but some things never do. The old adage that the customer is always right still stands. No matter how hard it is to accept, you have to live with that law if you want to stay in business.

We all know that it is harder to respect the customer now than it has ever been. Customers are much more demanding and insistent that we do things their way. And the irony is that they want less direct communication with us than ever before. The want to do everything online, and they won’t pick up the phone if you call them. And heaven forbid if you try to visit them in person…they want no part of that.

So you are supposed to figure out what it is they want, and in many instances with absolutely no help from them. Many times they will even get angry if you ask too many questions, even if those questions are designed to help give them what they want.

Difficult as it is, this is the world we live in, so we have to do whatever we can do make it work. Here are five things you can do to communicate with your customers and educate them, so they can help you help them to build a better product.

  1. Show them how valuable your knowledge can be to them. Instead of trying to “one up” your customers by showing them how much smarter you are about PCBs, try to educate them in a friendly and helpful way. Offer them seminars and webinars on how a board is built. Send them presentations and books about how boards are fabricated. Do whatever it takes to make your customers “board smart” because the smarter your customers are about building your product, the better their tools will be and the more respect they will have for your technology and what it takes to build their boards.
  2. Invite them to your facility. Look, captive board shops are a thing of the past. Many of the people we used to interact with, the ones who were buying boards or supporting those who bought boards, had come out of their companies’ captive board shops. For the most part these people are long gone and the people who have replaced them have never been in a board shop, so invite them to yours. Ask them over for the day, feed them, lecture them, tour them and educate them. Bond with them and create a partnership. This will go a long way toward making you their trusted advisor and expert on printed circuit boards.
  3. Learn everything you can about them. Visit their company. Find out how their boards are being used. Learn about their marketplace and who their customers are and what they have to do to succeed with their customers. Go to their receiving department and learn what they do with your boards when they arrive. Try to find ways to make it easier for them to use your boards. Could you package the boards in a way that would be more compatible with the way they receive the boards? Teach them how to handle your boards, how to pre-treat and bake them if need be. Show them how boards fabricated from different laminates should he handled differently and why. Be their expert, their partner, and their friend.
  4. Help them design the boards so that you will build them the best boards for the best price. I know this is not always easy and often they don’t want to hear what you have to say, but keep trying. If you have been working at doing items 1, 2 and 3, they should have enough trust and respect in you by now to listen to your advice about designing boards and calling out the right laminates in a way that will make your job easier while giving them the best product at the most economical price.
  5. Go back to what we said in the beginning of this column: the customer is always right. There’s another old saw that is relevant here: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Live by that; it’s the only way to go. And finally, one more (there is always one more in my “underpromise and overdeliver” world):
  6. Lead the way when respecting your customers. Show your staff by your example that you’re in business to serve your customers and that without customers you would not have a business. Never allow your folks to speak disrespectfully about your customers. Make sure you never speak disrespectfully about your customers, because if you do, you are giving everyone in your company permission to do the same.

The customer is always right and it is your job as a company leader to understand that and make sure everyone in your company understands it as well.

It’s only common sense.

———————————————————————————————————Dan Beaulieu is a 30-year PCB industry veteran, sales and marketing expert, and writer. He has contributed to numerous industry publications on topics ranging from sales and marketing, to board shop performance.

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Three Easy And Inexpensive Ways To Market Your Company

Okay, I give up, you don’t have the funds to properly market your company. You don’t have the less than one percent of your revenue that it would take to get your name out there like it should be. Or maybe you don’t want to. Remember the motto of PCB shop owners, “when your sales are low fire your sales people and buy a drill.” So maybe you’re just one of those guys who doesn’t get it. You never had to market your company before so why should you start now. Every time things got hard you just muddled through, cutting corners, and laying off people and holding costs until the business came back…because it always did, sooner or later. You’re not sure why, but it always did. So now even if business is down you see no reason to do anything but the same thing you have always done and that is…do nothing.dan21

Well let me ask you, how’s that going for you? Or maybe I should ask, how did it go for the over one thousand or more North American board shops that have gone out of business in the past twenty-five years? They didn’t do anything either. Some of them just kept buying equipment, equipment that in the end earned their creditors some of their money back. Or they just kept cutting costs to the point where one day, poof! They just disappeared into thin air.

Get this guys, times are not what they used to be. I know that in the seventies and maybe early eighties you could just sit tight and the business would come to you. You didn’t need to market, you didn’t need sales people. Back then all you needed was to build boards and they would come. But back then North America had over eighty percent of the PCB business world-wide and back then there was no Asia factor and back then, well how much are we going to cling to this “back then” stuff. The world has changed get over it, move on and do something about it.

And if finally, you get the point and at last realize that you are going to have to do something, here are three easy things you can do right now to market your company and get your name out there.

  1. Send out value-added newsletters about your company. They don’t have to be long and they don’t have to be fancy they just should have information that your customers’ can use. The newsletter should be made up of technical information that will help your customers with their PCB needs. They key is to build a data base of customers and potential customers and get your newsletter out on a regular basis, say about every six weeks. This means that with very little effort on your part your customers will be hearing from you on a regular basis. And once you have their attention you can stick in an offer that will serve as a call to action for them to start buying from you.
  2. Write and publish a regular column. There is something about appearing in print that somehow makes you an expert, whether or not you are one and believe me I know. You can write about a specific technology, or service that your company is good at. Writing a column will go a long way towards branding your company. And once columns are published you can use them for your own marketing efforts as well
  3. Issue press releases: This is the easiest one of all. Put together and send out press releases about your company when you buy a new piece of equipment or hire a new sales person or a new director of operations, or you are heading to a trade show to exhibit. This will keep your name out in the market and the best part it cost nothing. Done right, a well-written press release is as good as a paid ad.

And speaking of ads, there is one more, always under promise and over deliver. And my apologies, this is a bit of a commercial, but an important one. Spend a little money on some advertising. It cost much less than you think, and a publication such as Iconnect 007 offers special packages for all budgets. And the neat thing is once you are advertising with a trade-zine such as ours there are all sorts of bonus services that you will get; from free interviews to press release publications to even advice on how to send out the right message.

None of these ideas are difficult and except for the last one, none of them will cost you a penny. And by the way doing these things will help you to focus and define your company’s direction which is always a good thing. It’s only common sense.

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The Best Way To Compete With The Chinese

dan21Don’t. Just do what they can’t do instead.

While talking to a friend of mine the other day our talk turned to how American Printed Circuit Board shops can compete against the Chinese and other Asian board fabricators. After an extended exchange he turned to me and said. “It’s very simple Dan, the best way to compete against them, is to not compete against them.” After thinking about this for a few days I now realize that he was right, one hundred percent right. We let them play their game and we play ours.

Sure we are not that good anymore at what they do well, but on the same token they cannot do what we do either.

Look here is what they are good at: High volume low cost production. No matter how hard we try we will never have lower labor rates than they do. Well maybe never their economy is rising rather rapidly. But for the most part they have lower labor, they have more automation, they have more government support and yes they have also more support from our customers, some of our customers, you and I know who they are, the ones who learned technology from us and then sent it over to Asia to combine our technology with their lower labor and then eat our lunch for the sake of building the so called best products on earth with the cheapest circuit boards on earth.

That ship has sailed, we are never going to beat the Asians at this game, we never have and never will. The American companies who have survived and succeeded are the ones who did not bother to complete against the Asians in the first place, but rather looked for things that they could beat them at and then concentrated on those things.

What are those things? The things that we can do better than the Asians. Well let’s think about that for a minute. We are closer to our customers here in North America so shipping our product to them is much cheaper, as much as four times cheaper than shipping product from China to the U.S. Sure I know, I know all about those shipping containers and those slow boats from China and that mode of shipping does help with shipping costs, but it also eliminates the possibility of shipping small quantities fast. They have to have a whole lot of boards to fill those containers so there is no way that they are going to produce and ship five boards and have them to you in twenty four hours. No matter how much they say that can do it, and yes once in a while they can do it, but not as consistently as we can.

That’s right we can build and ship boards faster than anyone outside our country, so yes, that is an distinct advantage that we have over the Asians.

Technology is another one. As long as we can stay ahead of the technology curve we win. This is something that we have always done particularly well in this country and if we continue to focus on technology we will win the battle for that particular market.

So then building tough stuff fast gives us a strong advantage over our Asian neighbors.

Oh here are a couple of other things that Asian’s cannot do. They cannot build military boards, they cannot build mil spec boards or aerospace boards or anything that involves national security and no matter how many companies have tried to breach those compliances the door on doing that was shut nay slammed in the past year when the D.O.D. put our beloved printed circuit boards on the ITAR requirement list. So there. These products are to be built here in the U.S. and anything else is breaking the law. And as I always say do not hesitate to call the FBI whenever you learn of a competitor or even a customer who is trying to turn a blind eye to that fact.

And finally the granddaddy of all advantages we have over our competitors from the East is service. We can out service them any day of the week. Have you ever rejected boards you bought in China? That’s a lot of fun isn’t it? Did you ever try to find out what’s going on with those high tech boards you tried to have built in Taiwan? That’s equally as much fun isn’t it? NOT!

As long as we continue to service the hell out of our customers; as long as we produce what they need when they need it; as long as we keep ahead of the technology curve and as long as we build and deliver boards faster than anyone else in the world we will win. We will live another day we will thrive; and yes with all of the changes that are going on in the world right now; from innovative new product development, to on-shoring to re-enforced ITAR protection we’ll be doing just fine, just fine, it’s only common sense

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