Sometimes your customers may want something that you don't provide. While there's merit in understanding your business and keeping a focus, there's also merit in keeping your customers from calling the competition. In other words, find a way to provide what your customers ask you for, whether it's in your portfolio or not.

Alignment
There are three ways to give customers what you don't offer. One is to align yourself with non-competitive businesses that can meet the need. The implicit assumption is that your ally will scratch your back in return, throwing business your way occasionally. Inherently, there is
risk. Your reputation now partially hinges on their performance. If the product or service is completely out of your league, finding a reputable
company for your customer makes sense. Of course, there may be less risk than trying to offer something you know little about.

Even when it's within your industry, it might make sense to partner with another company if each of you target different segments. The classic example is the customer that services the residential market teaming up with the company that services commercial customers.

Often, the commercial customer wants his vendor to take care of his home. Commercial customers often acquiesce to these demands, though it disrupts their business. They simply aren't set up for it. A better approach is to team up with a residential company and let them take care of these customers. In return, the residential customer throws commercial leads back to the commercial company.

Finding A Way
The second way for a company to handle requests for products or services the company doesn't provide is to simply find a way to solve the problem. This means special orders. It means subcontracting.

I know of hardware stores where the floor associates are not allowed to tell a customer they don't carry an item. Instead, they are to respond,
"We can special order it."

Sometimes, companies buy from competitors. Some air conditioning contractors will buy a brand of equipment from a competitor if the
customer insists on it and the contractor can't get it from the manufacturer. In some towns, contractors carrying the same brand team up
to cover each other's equipment sizes when the summer heat hits and the manufacturers run out of inventory.

Many air conditioning contractors also subcontract insulation work. If they find that a homeowner's attic insulation is insufficient, they
include it in their proposals. Without proper insulation, they know that they won't be able to get the house cool and they don't want to force the homeowner to call insulation contractors. By making it simple to buy from them, they make it easier to buy from them.

In the auto glass industry, a number of manufacturers own their distribution. They'll do anything to keep an installer from calling a
competitor. It's common practice for the manufacturers to sell an installer brands competitive to their own. Manufacturer will also go to
extreme lengths to locate and expedite specific parts that no one has locally. For the installer, this simplifies ordering. One call gets them
whatever they need.

Referrals
The third way is to source the product and tell the customer where it's available. Remember the movie, "Miracle On 34th Street?" A customer came in looking for a specific toy that was out of stock. Kris Kringle directed them to a competitor. A manager was aghast until the delighted customer remarked that while she might buy that particular item elsewhere, she would purchase everything else right there.

If you think it's only something from the movies, you haven't been to a Nordstrom's. At Nordstrom's, there's a counter with a smiling clerk
standing beneath a sign that says, "Ask me anything." If the clerk doesn't know, the clerk will find out. Beneath the counter are catalogs
and phone books the clerk can use to track down the information requested.

Sometimes customers have problems you can't solve. Yet, your business survives on solving customer problems. You can either force the customer to seek a solution elsewhere or you can help find a solution. Help solve their problem and they will return with a new one in the future.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.