Electronic Design

What's all This Unavailability Stuff, Anyhow?

I had been waiting for this phone call for some  time. I knew it would come soon. I just did not know exactly when. Then on the line came a would-be customer, Mike Drimes (not his real name).

“I’ve been trying to order some LM78MGCPs, and the distributor said I can’t place an order for them.”

Quickly, I checked in the big price list. The LM78MGCP was listed there. Hmmm—that’s usually a pretty good indication that the part really is available. I asked him, “Did the distributor say you couldn’t get delivery by any particular time?” “No, he just said I couldn’t get them,” the wistful customer said.

I asked, how many did he want to buy—answer, 25. That’s not unreasonable. I mean, sometimes a guy wants to order two pieces, and sometimes 200,000, and in each case there may be a reason why it’s inappropriate for the distributor to book the order. Then I hit Mr. Grimes with the sucker punch.

“Exactly who was it that said you could not get the parts?” He did not know. “Which distributor was it that said you couldn’t get them?” He could not recall. So I explained patiently that I could pin down the problem and get him a good answer, and I would like to educate the distributor’s inside salesman to be helpful.

But I could do that only if we knew who that was. So I asked Mr. Grimes, “You find out who it was, the distributor and the name of the guy, and let me know, and we will educate him. I will go and find out what is the real availability on the LM78MGCPs. Okay?” And he agreed.

As soon as I got off the phone, I went over to Applications and asked if Wanda could get on the SWISS computer and tell me the availability of this part. No, she could not, because she did not have access to that computer. But she was a good sport and wanted to see how it came out. So she volunteered to get the info for me, which was a good thing because I was trying to empty out my office in preparation for a move, all 130 boxes and 5 file cabinets, or about 3 tons. And I set back to work at my packing business, grumbling, “I wonder what the problem is this time????....”

About every five months, I get one of these phone calls. “Your distributor says I can’t buy LM324Ns anymore.” “Your distributor told me the LM741 has been discontinued…”

And when we inquire, “Who told you that?” the would-be customer never has the name of the salesman. So I patiently explain that it’s kind of hard to help if you can’t tell me who it was that told you this story. Then we go off and investigate, and we find the most amazing stories.

Sometimes, the guy talked to a distributor who is not a distributor for NSC. Still, there are distributors who aren’t authorized distributors for NSC, and amazingly these people will sell you some NSC parts, and yet refuse to take orders for others. I still haven’t figured out exactly how they do that, but it happens occasionally. So, as soon as we find out which distributor it is, we can solve that problem pretty well, by referring him to a proper distributor.

Other times, the guy asks for the wrong part number, or an obsolete part number. No, the salesman can’t accept an order for LM324Hs, even if that sounds like a perfectly rational part number, because we don’t sell a quad op amp in an eight-lead TO-99 package. Other times, there’s a typo in a data book, and he tries to order a part that doesn’t exist.

When it’s our error, we owe the guy an apology. Sometimes when we make an error, we print a line in our price list, explaining that even though this looks like a legal number, it is not, and we suggest what the customer really might want.

But the people who guard our price list are usually trying to keep everything as simple as possible, so these explanations often don’t get into the price book.

For example, NSC discontinued the LX5700 temp sensor about 10 years ago, but the LM3911H-46 is the same chip in the same TO-46 package, with slightly looser specs. I’ve tried for many years to get a cross-reference in there, so if you ask for one, it refers you to the other. But I guess I can give up on that since there haven’t been so many requests for the LX5700 recently.

Other times a guy wants to buy some LM114s. But, it turns out we discontinued the LM114 about 13 years ago because business was negligible. The fact that a guy wants to place an order for some LM114s despite the fact that neither he nor anybody else has bought any for 13 years is lost on him.

He wouldn’t care if our stock sits there any nobody buys any. He just wants his parts, when he wants them. Fortunately, we have people who are good at trying to explain things to people like that…

Sometimes, there really is a computer error, and we have to fix that. In years past, a salesman would be working out of an old or obsolete or falsely marked-up price list that was printed on paper.

Back then, we actually had to send somebody to impound the offending document. In the 1990s, though, most such facts are contained in an online computer, so if there’s a mistake, it can often be corrected from a master terminal. But there are still more parts that we sell than can fit into the memory of the online computer. As a result, the availability of many low-volume products is still defined by paperwork—and the correctness of that paperwork is still threatened by all of the potential errors that can lurk in paperwork.

Ah, but there is one marvelous exception: Here at NSC, over the years, we’ve had so many enthusiastic people who wanted to get their hot new product onto the price list (so that it could be officially listed for sale) that we had to establish a set of interlocks to prevent any one wild man from putting the product on the list before everybody has agreed. Consequently, it takes an Act of Congress—a signoff sheet signed by every cognizant party—before the clerk is authorized to put the new product on the list. I guess that’s fair.

But if a part is to be obsolete, any number of people may apparently have a way to single-handedly, unilaterally drop a part off the price list. And no good safeguards exist to prevent an accidental banishment. Sometimes a single inadvertent keystroke has banished a perfectly good part, pushed it right off the page, with no guardrail to prevent it.

Then if a part is discovered to have been dropped accidently, it takes a long time to get all of the signatures and put it back on, despite the triviality of the error. So sometimes we have parts in Box-Stock and nobody can buy them because some absent-minded keystroke caused that part to fall off the price list, and then it takes a whole huge bureaucratic procedure to get it back on… sigh.

In other cases, the customer wants to buy 00 pieces “right away,” and when the salesman explains that the parts aren’t in stock, the unfortunate Purchasing Agent goes bleating to his boss that these parts “are not available” from NSC. Now, I’m a bug about Availability and Delivery, and that’s a whole ‘nother story which I plan to write someday.

Anyhow, what we often find is that the P.A. asked if he could get his 100 pieces right away, but when the answer was no, he did not ask, “Okay, when is the delivery?” Sometimes the answer is two weeks, or five weeks (or sometimes 18, which I happen to think is not a good way of doing business). But if the P.A. neglected to ask, “What is the actual availability?” then he’s not helping matters when he complains as if the part had been stated to be completely unavailable.

There will be times when the guy says he needs five pieces of LM109. For production? No, for a breadboard. Oh well, if you’re just using it for a breadboard, you can use the LM309s, and they will work just as well, and you can put in your LM109s later…. Sometimes that solves the problem. And sometimes you can substitute a more expensive, tighter-spec part.

When I showed the first draft of this column to our salespeople, they griped, “Why does Pease have to hang out all our dirty laundry?” But, of course, I bring out our conflicts, because these are the ones I see most clearly.

Anybody who shops at many places can tell his own horror stories about miscommunication and confusion with other salesmen. But if we tried to pretend that other companies’ salesmen had problems and that we never have communication problems with our customers, people would begin disbelieving anything I said.

So I talked a few hours with some of our sales managers about all of the problems we have had and the improvements we’re making in the order-entry business. And finally we agreed that this column will be a definite part of the solution, helping to improve communications.

Going back to this particular “unavailability” case, Wanda returned in 10 minutes with the fact that these 78MGCPs were available with six-week delivery. Hamilton Avnet was running an active market in ordering and scheduling to ship these parts, so there should be no problem there. Also, the computerized price list had nothing that would lead anybody to say the parts could not be ordered or obtained within a reasonable amount of time. So I called the customer pronto and told him the news that if he placed his order, he could get the parts fairly soon. And I assured him that we really did still want to find out exactly which salesman from which distributor had told him what. So, maybe we will be able to get to the bottom of this, in a few more weeks.

Meanwhile, I want to remind everybody out there that if you’re talking to any salesman, make sure you scribble down his name. When you have been waiting on the line, on hold, for three minutes, and the voice finally says “This is Joe,” you may be so relieved that you will immediately start to tell the salesman your story. But before you go off half-cocked, note down JOE adjacent to the phone number that you dialed to get in to the distributor. Then if he tells you a story that you don’t like, or a story that you do like, but that somebody tries to deny it later, then at least you’ll be able to say, “It was JOE who told me that.” Without that identification, you have no corroboration for your story.

And whenever somebody tries to tell you something unreasonable about the availability of a part, try to get all the facts you can before you complain to the experts. Obviously in any area of human endeavor, where strangers get together to try to do business, there’s a myriad of ways that misunderstandings and miscommunications can occur—some hilarious, and some pitiful. If you want to cry on my shoulder, that’s okay. But the real question is, can we solve and prevent these problems? If everybody jots down a note that he was talking with “JOE,” that’s a good first step.

All for now./ Comments invited! /RAP/ Robert A. Pease/ Engineer

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