Achieving Positive Results with Precise Specifications

Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2022

By Dave Flatten

As powder coaters, we have all had this experience. A customer calls and is excited about working with your company on what is presented as an easy powder coating job. Great situation to be in, right? Well, not so fast.

As the conversation continues, the customer says, “I’ve got this product and I need you to coat it black.” You reply, “What do you mean coat it black?” He says, “Just coat it black, you know, down and dirty black. It just has to be black and real cheap. I really don’t care how you make it black I just need it black, and by the way, I need it yesterday!”

This is a far too common situation. It’s always a rush and always presented as “no big deal.” However, this conversation, no matter how many times I have it, always sends chills up my spine and raises the hair on the back of my neck. Why? Well, because a multitude of problems, along with an upset, misinformed customer and the world of litigation are knocking at the door.

The Devil is in the Details
When you open that door, it is imperative that you immediately start unraveling and clarifying the project. While your customer may think “paint it black, cheap, and fast” is more than enough information to do the job, don’t let him hang up or walk away without digging for crucial details. A flood of questions should come to mind. Does this job have a quality, process, and/or warranty specification? What is the part and how will it be used? Will it be inside or outside, and where exactly? Will it be subjected to a harsh environment?

Diving into the coating history of the part, if there is a history, can uncover valuable information. For example, was the part already being powder coated? The response should trigger your next line of questions. If the part was previously powder coated, you will want to know what process has been used and if there are any problems or concerns with the current finish. The fact that the customer is looking to change coaters indicates there is an issue somewhere. It could be with the finish itself or related to price, turnaround time, etc.

If the part hasn’t been powder coated before, it is important to start with the basics. Look at the part design to see if the finishing process was considered. Specifically, check for things like hang holes, areas susceptible to washer solution entrapment, and overlapping or incomplete weld seams that can’t be sealed, coated, or encapsulated. Such design imperfections can result in corrosion and premature failure of the finish. What will be acceptable to the customer likely depends on the desired physical properties of the part/finish. This includes durability requirements, conditions the part will be exposed to, critical and non-critical surface areas, and life cycle expectations.

At this point you should have a good understanding of your customer’s needs, and hopefully your customer is beginning to realize there is much more than meets the eye for his “black, cheap, and fast” powder coating project. But don’t let him off the hook yet; more information is needed to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Don’t overlook important details, like asking if there are areas of the part that should not be coated and will need to be masked. That’s certainly something you don’t want to find out after the fact.

Good, Better, Best
About now, you may feel like you’ve put the customer through an interrogation much like those seen on popular TV police dramas. However, this necessary evil will help you determine the right finishing solution for the customer. In fact, you may discover there are multiple solutions that you can present to the customer. I like the menu approach for quality and pricing which offers a good, better, or the best finishing solution. Let the customer determine their level of confidence in the finishing process options. Using this approach can help you determine their risk tolerance as well. The reality is all finishes fail eventually. So, it is important to identify the risk tolerance goal you need to be able to breeze past down the road.

The good, better, best approach also comes in handy should you find yourself in a legal situation because something did not go as planned with the finish and negatively impacted product lifespan. It allows you to demonstrate to a judge and jury that you did your due diligence to provide an appropriate finishing solution based on part design and information provided regarding durability, exposure, and end-use requirements.

Developing the appropriate process specification is the first step to keeping a rewarding long-term relationship with your customer. Correctly performing that process per the specification is the step that makes that relationship profitable. Your ability to regularly get a restful night’s sleep will come from testing per the specification to confirm that the process was followed by your production team. Documentation and archived records for future verification are especially important and should never be skipped. Accurate documentation will keep you out of hot water.

Value Added Services
Once the finishing solution is identified and agreed to by the customer, there is another step in the overall process that should not be overlooked—logistics. Logistics can lead to value added services and increased revenue. You need to understand how you will receive the parts, as well as pack and return them in a manner that is efficient for you, and more importantly, efficient and economical for your customer. From low hanging fruit, like packing the parts at your facility using customer branded materials, to advanced services such as assembly, packaging, and shipping direct to the final customer, there are a myriad of value added services that will make your customer’s life easier while building your bottom line.

A Little Extra Effort Can Go a Long Way
Please do not fall into the trap of thinking all of this is way too much work. Even if your customer comes to you with absolutely nothing that could be considered a specification, it is critical to understand exactly what is needed to satisfy your customer’s finishing needs. To help facilitate the process, create a simple one-page form that includes the information required for you to accurately quote the job. When you are presented with an opportunity, pull out that form and run through it with your customer. A few minutes up front can save time, hassle, rework, and money. In addition, your thoroughness will demonstrate to your customer that you are serious about your profession and are committed to doing the job correctly, with their input and direction.

Think of all this another way. You are creating the ideal finishing solution specification for your customer and for YOU! Your production team gets an “all-star” specification, and your customer gets exactly what they want with no misunderstandings and a clear path to success. With any luck, your company will be added to the specification as the preferred finisher!

There’s a phrase I borrowed from way back that I love and repeat often, “Help make ‘em sticky.” Meaning, keeping long term happy and profitable customers is by design. By walking through the details with your customer, even on the “easy” jobs, you demonstrate that you are a concerned, determined, and experienced finishing solutions professional. No doubt, this will go a long way to getting your customer to “stick” around.

Dave Flatten is president of Inland Powder Coating.