Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Friends in Important Places...January 2002

I have a friend and former colleague. His name is Bill. Bill is a great friend to have because not only is he a warm and caring human being, he is also a fount of practical knowledge on just about every subject that I have had the opportunity to explore with him. Should you wish to rebuild an antique piano, Bill can tell you how. Are you having problems with the brakes on your old Toyota? Ask Bill. He will likely have some useful advice to offer.

Some years ago, Bill decided that he would give up working on new displays and try his hand at growing grapes and making wine instead. Naturally, he brought the same scientific thoroughness and creativity to his new endeavor that had led him to be so knowledgeable about other subjects. He studied every aspect of how grapes grow, which varieties are the best match to the local soil, and what techniques are likely to produce the highest quality yields. Not everything went smoothly at first, such as one year when a giant flock of migrating birds consumed nearly his entire crop. But soon he was producing ample quantities of excellent grapes and could begin to implement his dream of making premium wines. His winery now operates on the same carefully studied principles that have been typical of his approach to every project. And should a piece of equipment malfunction, Bill is just as likely to go into his own well-equipped shop and fabricate a replacement part as order one or drive to the hardware store. As you may have already guessed, each year's wine exceeds the superb quality of the previous vintage. As I said, Bill is a great friend to have.

All of us can benefit from friends like Bill. Some of us may even have the talents to help others in a similar way. Person-to-person knowledge networks have existed for thousands of years. The traditional, and typically most successful, merchants have always prided themselves on a thorough knowledge of their products and have distinguished themselves by the superior quality that resulted from the application of this expertise.

Unfortunately, a few decades ago, things began to change. The larger companies began to explore and implement concepts known by names such as "cost effective marketing." No longer was it deemed important to have a sales staff that knew the product. Cost- cutting and sales quotas became the important measures of success.

One of my first personal experiences with this new approach to selling occurred shortly after I had started my professional career. During my college years, I had worked at Tektronix and had become impressed with the company and the superb quality of its products. During my graduate-school years, I had made friends with the local Tektronix field engineer and he had given me some valuable suggestions for setting up one of my experiments. This further solidified my positive image of the company. With such brand loyalty, there was no question who I would call first after I started my engineering career and had a small capital-equipment budget to work with. But unbeknownst to me, some changes had taken place.

The "new" Tektronix sales engineer who showed up with a product to demonstrate didn't know how some of its basic features worked. He was stumped by almost every question that we asked. Apparently, he had expected us to already know the product and he was there just to take the order. Well, he didn't get this order and he was never invited back when other equipment purchases were being considered. And as a new employee who wanted to make a good impression on my colleagues, I was embarrassed and never again spoke up for the company when other opportunities arose. Within my circle of engineers, Tektronix no longer had the image of a company that catered to professionals.

In spite of this experience, this story does have a happy ending because, a few years later, I accepted a management position with Tektronix and spent the next fifteen years initiating and managing the development of some really interesting display technologies. Not only that, but during my time at Tek I told this story many times and it may have had some small influence on how the company subsequently made its hiring and training decisions regarding sales engineers.

Over the last 20 years or so, it seems that more and more companies have taken the path of hiring sales and product-support personnel with marginal skills and/or putting them to work with minimal training. We have all had the frustrating experience of holding a phone to our ear for a half hour or more only to find that the person who finally answers the "help line" is giving us bad advice or trying to shift the blame to some other part of the system or to someone else's software. But, thankfully, there are exceptions and when I encounter such knowledgeable individuals they immediately go into my favored- vendor file.

A few days ago, I was searching for a vacuum pump. One company I called not only gave me the answers I needed but told me what I should try to diagnose a problem I was having.

Then last weekend, I needed some help on how to treat a problem with our lawn. Guess where I went! Not to a large home improvement store but to a local store called the Grange. There they always have someone around who knows everything about plants and how to make them grow -- or not. I didn't mind that I might have to pay a few pennies more for the product they recommended. Using their knowledgeable advice saved me time and multiple false attempts. The large discount stores and mail-order houses may be great for commodity products, but when help is needed, a knowledgeable merchant, or a friend like Bill, are mighty valuable to have around.

Perhaps I am too much of a raging optimist, but it is my prediction that the attempts to convert all of us to automated, impersonal, and "cost-effective" sales have peaked, and that those merchants – be they brick-and-mortar or .com -- who realize the value of providing their customers with competent product advice to go along with the products they offer, will be more successful than those that try to get by with poorly trained "order takers."

With the Society for Information Display, the philosophy of personalized customer service is already in place today and will continue to be in place in the future. That is what you should expect and that is what you can count on. While we have continued to increase the capabilities and richness of our web-site, we have also continued to increase the capabilities of our staff. Competent and knowledgeable responses are what you will get whether you contact the SID office in San Jose, the editors of our publications, or Palisades Convention Management for Information Display Magazine advertising or conference-related information. When it comes to SID, you too can have "friends in important places."

In keeping with this customer service orientation, I would also like to hear from you directly regarding how the Society can do better. You can reach me by e-mail at or, by telephone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by regular mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.