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How to advise your customers they need to make safety changes

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

...even when they don’t know they have them.

When I started out in the material handling industry years ago, I was very lucky to start out at a dealership with some excellent and patient managers, who took the time to teach and coach me in the right way to work with customers. I started in aftermarket and moved into truck sales and major accounts over my career at the dealership. During that time, I learned that you must tell the customers the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter how bad it seems. You were allowed to be diplomatic and sympathetic in telling it, but none the less, it had to be told regardless of the consequences to the salesperson or the dealership.

That was a valuable lesson and one that I had to apply recently when working with a new customer. During my first audit of their material handling fleet for safety and functionality, I found a number of very serious issues, I literally saw 30 accident and injury pictures which would scare you to death and found the systems that should prevent these types of issues were broken, and had been for some time. I was called into a meeting with the corporate safety manager, the facility manager, his operations manager and the maintenance manager along with a number of their forklift trainers. The top two managers were new to the facility and they had both just come from a company with an excellent safety program. Their first question was “How did we do?” to which I said “You are very lucky to have not had a forklift fatality yet.” That was definitely not what they expected to hear and it turned the meeting’s tone from casual to deadly serious in about five seconds. They asked me to rate them from 1-10, with 1 being the worst location I had ever visited and 10 representing the best, from a forklift safety standpoint. They got a 2 on the scale of 10.

At that point, I fully expected I might be flying back home early without completing the project, but to my relief they said they appreciated my honesty and wanted to know how to get to the top of the scale. Instead of getting angry, they were glad that someone had the courage to tell them just how bad things had gotten and to offer help in fixing the problems. Many times, top managers are isolated from real problems by lower level managers that are worried about what would happen if the truth got to top management. Several local dealers had the opportunity to have told this customer the same things, but failed to do so and allowed the customer to continue on as always. Maybe they didn’t think to mention it, maybe they were worried to mention it for fear of losing the account, maybe they didn’t even notice, but for whatever reason nothing was ever said until that day. The customer is now beginning the slow, but steady, process of fixing problems and ensuring they stay fixed. These changes will result in much greater safety, tremendous cost savings, and a more efficient operation, but only because we told the truth regardless of the consequences. It is also one of several times I have felt that we may have saved a life due to changes being implemented. Be sure that when you are at customers locations you are looking for safety related issues, mentioning them to the customer’s top management and offering to help fix them; not just looking for a quick truck or maintenance sale. The best salespeople are problem solvers, not door to door salesman looking to make a quick dollar. Customers know this deep down, even if you have to remind them from time to time.

Written by Brian Colburn of Forklift Training Systems, a leading provider of forklift safety training and materials. Forklift Training Systems can be contacted at 614-583-5749 or at Visit them on the web at

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