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Blackmail is such an ugly word...

Posted on August 22, 2010 at 11:27 AM

I don't often like to mix the relationships between my writing career and my Custom Theater and Audio career. I've found that they are best kept separate, like Church and State (or more accurately like fun/cool job and day job, or job I do while sitting on the couch drinking a martini and other job.) But sometimes they are so closely related that they become inexorably intertwined. On many occasions, I've reviewed something that we have then decided to become a dealer for (or that we decided to avoid like the electronic plague). Other times we will be selling something that is new and cool and that should be reviewed. (This just happened with the new Yamaha wireless iPod dock-thingy. Look for an upcoming review in Resi...)

 

What I don't like to do too often is to go to the well of my (relatively minor and inconsequential) journalism influence and draw up the sweet-sweet waters of asking PR teams for help with something that is strictly Custom Theater in nature. When I do turn to PR for help, it is usually only after I've exhausted other means of help or can't figure out the right person to reach out to for tech support or something.

 

But sometimes the normal channels don't work. When the dealer side of things isn't responding or working as it should, the PR side can apply that extra bit of....pressure. (Kind of like the pointy part at the front of your golf seat.) Currently we're going through a bit of situation where the only recourse was to leave the cannolis and grab the gun. (Journalistically speaking,  of course.) It was time for me to pull out the Thor Hammer of journalism and try to, uh, influence a more desirable outcome.

 

A company that we have done business with for close to ten years has suddenly decided that we aren't doing the kinds of numbers that they would like to see. (Because this issue is still on-going, I'll not mention the comapany by name.....yet!) Now, perhaps this company hasn't noticed that we -- the global we -- are neck deep in the worst economic times that the world has seen in generations. Where many people are deciding between paying for groceries or their mortage, and the idea of buying $6000+ audio/video systems is getting tossed on the back burner. The downhill slide to our relationship started several months ago following a visit from our new factory rep where he implied that we needed to make some decisions on who we wanted to do business with. We implied that we had made that decision by kitting out our showroom with their products. Then we got a follow-up e-mail from new rep saying (direct quote), "In these times we need to make choices on who we are doing business with." He went on to say that they needed to side with dealers that were going to support the brand. I'm sorry, but I really thought that having close to $40,000 worth of your product spread throughout EVERY room of our store WAS supporting your brand.


So recently the other shoe dropped and they called us to say that they would be terminating our relationship in 30 days. Oh, and even though we have NEVER been late on a payment in these ten years of doing business, our credit was now suddenly no longer good. If we wanted to buy anything during the final days of our relationship, it would have to be paid for in full up front. Turns out we're not alone; this company now thinks they can have better success by ditching many of their smaller dealers throughout the country (I've heard they are dropping like 100 dealers...) and going through a Big Box chain.

 

So, I stewed on this for a few days, and -- because messing with my money is like messing with my emotions, and losing this brand would definitely be messing with my money -- then decided to exercise an option available to me. I reached out to their PR rep. I called him and explained that while we as a store might not be doing huge numbers, as a dealer I was able to offer them a ton of other value in the form of free press in my repeated positive comments of their products -- even when they weren't the subject of the review. That our store was like that 11th man that spends the majority of the season sitting on the bench, not getting much actual playing time but that supports the team by improving morale and being a force multiplier for the other players. We were the frickin' Rudy Ruettiger of dealers! (Side note on Rudy; I've met him in person, and while he might have a giant heart, he's got a giant body to go along with it; he is like twice as big as Sean "Samwise" Astin, and not at all the runt-of-the-litter that they make him out to be in the film.) I wanted this PR contact to relay the fact that we were a small dealership but that we carried a LOUD voice. In this case, our pen is way mightier than our POs.

 

So after several days of not hearing back from him following our phone call, I reached out with an e-mail to see if he had heard anything. To that I received this reply:

 

Hi John,

I did get in touch with them and expressed your wishes to keep the line.  Not sure what to tell you at this point. The ball is pretty much in their court. I guess having a conversation with [their VP of Sales and Marketing] might be an option for you.

Wish I could tell you something positive.

 

This was clearly NOT the reply I was looking for, so I decided to elevate the rhetoric. To stop with the nicey-nice and allusions and subleties and lay it on the line. To drop the Thor Hammer as it were, may it smash fingers and toes where it falls. Seriously, they already want to take the line away from us; what do I have to lose? (A cornered John is a dangerous John; or at least a vocally abrasive John.) So here was my follow-up:

 

OK. Thanks. I just wanted to make sure that they understood that this is going to *seriously* piss off a member of the press. Of what is still the largest A/V publication in the industry. Who frequently speaks positively of their products.

And that that will certainly not continue.

I appreciate you making the effort.

It really makes the quote by their chairman about not giving up on specialty A/V dealers and working harder than ever to help them meet challenges seem like total BS.

Glad that we invested so heavily in their brand.

I'll be sure and send you a link to the blog post I write on how they haven't given up on independent specialists.

 

Within 24 hours of sending this -- on a Saturday no less! -- I received an e-mail saying that the chairman of the company wants to have a phone call with me. Will this be a call to say, "Sorry you feel that way, but this is the way it is and suck it, Trebek!" or will it be more, "Wow! We totally see it your way! We value our relationship with you as a business partner and appreciate all the ways that you support us and our line" or perhaps he'll come back all Patriot Games style with "Are you threatening me? I will put such a stranglehold on your [electronics] money that your boys will be out in the streets throwing rocks! I will f'ing destroy you! I will make it my mission in life!"


Either way, this will be one time that the chairman won't be cutting off a nameless faceless dealer with the stroke of a fountain pen while sitting isolated in a cushy leather chair. He's gonna have to look me in the eye when he shoots me. (Well, he'll be looking at something while he's on the phone with me. Maybe I can e-mail him a photo of my before the call so then I can imagine him actually looking me in the eye. The squinty one. And I'm hoping that no actual shooting will be involved. Besides, just like Uncle Stevie says, "I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind." Say Thankee-sai, Gunslingers.)


So, blackmail is such an ugly word. I'd much rather call it forced to consider an alternate viewpoint. Or bully pulpit. Or something. Anyhow, the next move is theirs...

Categories: August 2010

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4 Comments

Reply [email protected]
5:08 PM on August 22, 2010 
OH! i await the reply. I hope it its the second one. I am sure I will read about it in your blog soon....................
Reply Scott Moody
1:37 PM on August 23, 2010 
As a PR pro I find this to be a very interesting strategy. You are definitely in an somewhat unusual position where your professional (and personal) life blurs a number of lines. I'm curious A) to know what company this and B) to see what comes out of your conversation.
Reply Chris Westfall
11:18 AM on August 25, 2010 
John, you are well-respected by so many people, if not this one company. Don't let this situation get you down. You're right: You deserve better than this - but, you've gotten the best that this manufacturer has to offer. It's unfortunate; Numbers rule the realm, and they sometimes force manufacturers to make [poor] business decisions - and even worse communication decisions. These choices make you scratch your head - and then, shake your fist. I admire your loyalty, but situations like these are a wake-up call for change. If the VP of Sales has a spinal column, you deserve a conversation with the executive(s) of your choice (but like a referee's bad call, the decision may not be reversed). Come what may: calling balls and strikes on this manufacturer in the press may satisfy your anger, but not much else. Everyone knows that you are a clever & inventive guy, and a talented writer. Don't let this manufacturer's mistake take any cycles away from the rest of your business; it's not worth it.
Reply Steve Zaboji
12:36 PM on August 27, 2010 
As a former rep for the company in question....I am all ears!