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by By Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | May 01, 2009

Tough times can bring out the worst in people, including business contacts and partners. Even though these professionals may need your business now more than ever, you might still find some slow in returning phone calls or even late in responding to your request for a proposal.

It might seem counter-intuitive that in this economy, some suppliers might appear uninterested or unresponsive. But there are very good reasons why customer service levels dip when the economy nosedives. Following are some insights into dealing with dwindling customer service, and how to cope effectively.

Staff Cuts
Many companies have cut beyond the fat well into the bone. In some cases, there have been layoffs on top of salary cuts on top of benefit cuts. In short, motivation is at an all-time low, and short-term focus/individual survival is at an all-time high.

Even when the best of intentions remain, your reps could be spread so thin that they have tremendous difficulty getting back to you right away. That is, if your rep is still your rep. When companies hold on to certain people for political reasons, layoffs can create strange redeployments and/or crazed multitasking (for example, Harry in accounting suddenly also has "account executive" added to his title).

How to cope: Adjust your expectations, and try to be patient and persistent. If neglectful service puts your program at risk, ask the vendor to have one of its senior executives manage your account temporarily.

Late Payment
It is likely that various vendors (perhaps even your company) owe the supplier money, making it difficult to keep the business running smoothly. Perhaps the vendors' own suppliers are in the same position, causing a chain reaction. In any case, payment difficulties contribute to the stresses on the business and staff, which can result in dismal customer service.

How to cope: Check in with your accounting team: Is your payment late, or have your company's payment terms changed without your knowledge? Some firms, especially those hurt by the credit freeze, have had to change from paying bills on a 30-day cycle to a 60- or even 90-day cycle. If you have a close relationship with your vendor and you are in a position to expedite a payment, you can be a hero by decreasing at least one level of pressure in the supply chain.

Sleep Deprivation
The depressing state of the current economy is giving many people enough stress to ramp up some serious insomnia; on top of that, they may be working extra hours or taking on additional jobs to make ends meet. The result is serious fatigue, which can lead to shorter fuses and increased errors.

How to cope: Be extra-vigilant in checking numbers in budgets, invoices, etc. Make a conscious choice to double-check any information that doesn't look right. Fix these mistakes yourself (when possible), forgive the offender and move on. You might even catch a mistake or two you made in your own state of exhaustion.

Ease the Stress
Remember all those lunches, special events and gifts you've received from suppliers over the years? Did you ever thank them properly? This can be your time for payback, which can be as simple and inexpensive as a handwritten note or cup of coffee.

Make an effort to spend some quality time with your most valued partners (misery loves latte). Let them know you are in the trenches with them. Relationships are the core of the meetings industry, and sometimes, especially when we're busy, it's easy to lose sight of that.