I indeed enjoyed “one of those days” recently, when I woke up to learn the disturbing news that one of our good clients had a terrible, career-damaging experience because of an error under our scope of responsibility. (I cannot disclose identities because it is not right to identify clients in this public media.)
When I heard her story, my stomach churned and I thought several four-letter expletives. I immediately told the client, that if I felt that way on hearing the story, the client must have felt it 10 times worse, and I would work right away to get to the bottom of the problem.
The issue arose when one of our suppliers screwed up badly on a delivery, in such a manner that the problem would only become apparent at just the wrong moment, as our poor client attended an important meeting. It isn’t an an error I could have done much to prevent because it originated at our supplier, and it defies the odds of probability how the particular sequence of events could have occurred.
But this didn’t matter to me. It isn’t our client’s responsibility to figure out who messed up; it is mine; and it is also my responsibility to make things right as fast as possible. I quickly called my supplier and asked for resolution; we were able to solve some of the issues right away. I cancelled an invoice. (I expect our supplier to issue a corresponding credit, and this organization has, in the past, so the immediate financial cost of the mistake will not be out of my company’s pocket.) I need to work on longer-term mitigation; we cannot undo the bad experience but we can certainly leave our client with the memory that we didn’t treat the matter lightly, and really set out to correct the problem.
Enough headaches for one morning, eh. Well, not quite. I still had that internal matter to resolve — one of our sales reps had sent out invitations to an association dinner, with the “yes” answers to be charged back to the company — and he hadn’t cleared the expenses ahead of time with me.
I reviewed the expense provisions of our employment contracts and discovered that the rep (intentionally or not) had virtually driven a truck through a loophole in our expense approval and reimbursement processes. Thoughts of rather high unwanted costs filled my mind. I chewed out the rep (yeh, I can get angry at times!), and set out to write amendments to the expense policy to tighten up the rules.
In communiating the revised rules to the entire staff (not naming the particular rep in the email; just making it a generic issue) I described my experience at the tour of Google’s headquarters in September. (Darn it, the story about how Google learned to impose some basic expense controls for its employees is good and innocent, but thinking legally, that tour is subject to non-disclosure rules, so I can’t share the details here!)
One person had, in fact, responded to my representative’s email, accepting the dinner invitation (for two). I expected that I would need to write off the approximately $100 cost. The sales rep, seeing my anger, offered to pay the costs out of his own pocket.
A few hours later, we received an email from the client who had accepted the invitation. The individual had some money to use up before year end and would really like to buy some advertising, urgently . . . like a few thousand dollars worth! As well, the client reported that the last time the organization had advertised, the project had resulted in worthy inquiries.
This story shows the principle of reciprocity at work, of course. If you extend unexpected generosity, you often receive much in return — and the return reward is often much greater than your initial generosity. So the sales rep, through his action, could convert a $100 gift into thousands of dollars in revenue. I had to admit I was “wrong” but my sales rep isn’t complaining (he gets the order!) I still sent out the email tightening up the expense reimbursement rules but probably if any of our reps would suggest (and request in advance) permission to try the idea again next year, I would approve it.
So does it sometimes make sense to break the rules or stretch them and go forward? Absolutely. Trouble is, do you know when and how to break the rules . . .
I wish I could undo the damage to our other client with a $100 dinner, however. But I think we owe her more. That’s accepting responsibility.
Some days business can be just a little challenging . . .