Rocket Science

The argument had taken somewhat of a harsh turn. Bull Terrier, who comes by his name honestly, growled something not quite off a Valentine card. The techie he faced was frustrated that his brilliant algorithm was being wasted on a sales grunt.

At issue was a dashboard the tech created that would measure the sales performance of a new line of industrial security products. The dashboard was built around a series of metrics that went far beyond merely sales volume and margins. Bull argued that their customers don’t want all this information, that they have their own way of measuring results, that too much technology turns them off. The answer to that was that customers could easily cherry-pick the metrics they found useful and ignore the rest. But for those that appreciate having more information so that they can make better decisions, we will have a distinct advantage over our competitors.

The argument soon became esoteric.

You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.

“You have built a rocket ship,” Bull said in a rather exasperated tone. “The customer wants a car. The customer wants to drive to the grocery store, not fly to the moon.”

“The customer already has a car,” the techie replied with matching exasperation. “He doesn’t need us to give him another one. We are giving him a way to fly to the moon, something he doesn’t already have.”

“The customer doesn’t know how to pilot a rocket ship.”

“That’s where you come in. You will teach him to become a pilot. Do your job.”

“ Your job,” responded Bull angrily, “is to give the customer what he wants.”

“We are a technology company. Our job is not to give the customer what he wants but what he will soon learn that he needs.”

“What he needs!? You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.”

The techie looked at Bull with a blank expression. “Why would a rocket have wheels?”

There is a Japanese proverb that says: Too much is just the same as too little. I heard it in the context of arranging flowers, the art of which, in Japan, is called Ikebana. I think it also works well in the context of this exchange.

One to a Customer

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” – Daniel Varè

With the end of the year approaching, we are already well into our first round of customer negotiations. It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation. It is the sum of all things and the end of some things. I especially enjoy this time of year because it is when strategy hits the streets.

Our guess was that our toughest negotiation would be with our largest customer. Several issues are conspiring against us. First, some new faces have been added to their senior management team. It is most likely that these newcomers will want to make some very public changes to show that they are in charge, that they have a new vision for their organization, that this is now their company. We have been through this before and we learned the hard way that, with new people in place, you have to tread softly while making your presence known. They have to believe they need your support before they’ll give you theirs.

We did our best to meet with them in the run-up to the negotiations, to hear what they have to say, to figure out where they are headed. Our perceptive, almost empathic CEO, the Man from Glad, has few peers when it comes to cutting through the clutter and figuring out what’s really what. But their CEO has been well shielded and his intentions well camouflaged.

Also working against us is that they have recently acquired a company that is already a customer of ours. Their volume is now that much larger and they are looking for new discount plateaus to recognize this fact. So far, we have made it clear that we won’t pay more for business we already have, but what happens, I wonder, when push becomes shove. Will our resolve tumble like autumn leaves?

It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation.

The biggest problem with this particular negotiation is that all our other customers and all our competitors are watching closely. Seeing us as vulnerable, our principal competitor is going after this business with all guns blazing. With nothing to lose and plants to fill, it is offering the moon. Even if it doesn’t get the business, it will let our other customers know that we had to beat out an outrageous offer and that their own respective deals now likely pale by comparison, that they will no longer be competitive, that it is time for them to switch suppliers. Some might take the bait. In short, with all eyes now fixed on us, we are basically negotiating for the whole market.

Our clear-headed and always calculating CEO had other ideas. He has his own take on diplomacy which he might well have borrowed from Wynn Catlin’s Kiss Me Hardy: diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.

So he phoned this customer’s CEO and arranged a one-on-one meeting at a local art gallery. After a considerable amount of frottage, our ever so foxy Man from Glad explained that, while there are a number of interesting, outside-the-deal arrangements we could make, it would do nothing for either organization to drop the whole market and upset the equilibrium that currently exists. There is no benefit accruing to new management when a deal is struck that reduces profits. The best arrangement for everyone is to just quietly extend the current deal and – my favorite thing to do – create a secret war chest for exclusive promotions. Some more frottage to frame the conversation and an understanding was reached.

Bull Terrier, our V.P. Sales was then dispatched to iron out the details of an extension. His minions were told to quickly and quietly secure any customers that may be at risk. It was the equivalent of Winston Churchill’s advice not to disband your army until you’ve got your terms.

We have our marching orders.

Throne for a Loop

Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator. (Why do you laugh? Change the name and this is your story.)

So here’s a few things you’ve got to know about black widow spiders. Not the Small Office version, not our head of human resources, filled with venom and shrouded in mystery though she is. No, the real black widows. They are rather shy creatures, preferring to stay low to the ground, hidden in dark corners. They seldom bite unless threatened or (literally) pressed hard and, even then, won’t necessarily waste their venom on you; they’d rather save it for a meal. The venom won’t kill, though it could make you quite ill.

Black widow spiders are also kind of neat, with a very complex system of communication. They can transmit very detailed messages using vibrations and pheromones deposited on the silky threads of their sticky webs. The scent will tell visiting males if his female host has mated before and if she is hungry. Both would be of keen interest to the male if this particular female is the kind that consumes her mate after sex.

Now you are likely very confused, still unsure if I am talking about black widows in general or the one in particular. I cannot blame you; personally, I can hardly tell them apart.

Anyway, our Black Widow has an office with its very own bathroom. It makes sense to be self-contained; everything HR should be kept under wraps after all. And low to the ground and hidden in dark corners.

Earlier this week, she had an important management meeting to attend and, knowing it was likely to drag on, decided to lighten her load. On this day, however, fortune was not on her side. Her toilet blocked.

So more latin: Media vita in morte sumus. Smack in the middle of the day, her life going along just fine, everything came to a sudden stop. Our Black Widow was in deep… uh… trouble.

Now she was not totally helpless. She had a plunger standing at the ready in a corner. And a knife and fork for that matter. This happened before and Black Widow knew what to do. She plunged. But nothing. She plunged again. Nothing again. Plunge, plunge. Nothing, nothing. This was not a good thing. The hourglass tattooed on her abdomen was filling with panic. Plunge, plunge.

She tried to break up the pieces, but the hardness she showed others was coming back to her in spades and the pieces held firm. The cookies, shall we say, wouldn’t crumble.

A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Time passed. The meeting had already started. The secretary poked her head in the doorway. Is everything okay? she called out to her boss. Black Widow answered her meekly. Vibrations. Pheromones. She tried to explain her dilemma as delicately as she could. The secretary tried not to laugh. Don’t press the spider.

Well, whoever said “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” wasn’t in Black Widow’s office that day.

Her colleagues, wondering where she was, decided to check in on her. The first to arrive was – fortunately for her – Rigor Mortis. He has a calmness about him that is contagious. Is everything okay? he asked the secretary. Not quite so, came the reply. Does she have a plunger? Yes. Always. Does it have a flange at the bottom? He asked our awkwardly inconvenienced arachnid though the door. Is the flange out? I can help you if you need. Noooo!, Black Widow wailed.

General Ledger then appeared, straight as an arrow. To the heart. Then Bull Terrier. When the nature of this particular beastly situation became apparent to him, a wicked smile began to form at the corners of his lips. Can I help, he asked our mortified araneomorph. Plunge, plunge. I don’t want to bowl you over with advice, he went on. All that plunging must have made you quite flushed. He snickered.

The Black Widow went into a frenzy, pumping so hard, the soupy mess splattered all over her pants and shoes. A stifled shriek could be heard through the door.

Our supportive and mostly sensitive CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the fray. As did his bosomy secretary, Miss Pigeon. The circumstances may not have been auspicious, but you have to give Black Widow credit: she is certainly able to draw a crowd.

Well, Miss Pigeon may be top-heavy and hard to take but, as in the Desktop Affair, she took matters in hand (so to speak) and shooed everyone out of the room. She called down to maintenance and apprised them of the situation. Then she told Black Widow to clean up and get out. This she did… and well she did because the maintenance guy appeared shortly.

Undeterred by the odiferous and oleaginous slop, he worked on the blockage and quickly resolved the issue. He left with a tip of his cap and without a word.

Aesop’s fables made use of humble incidents to teach great truths. There was no great truth to our tale, however, no moral to learn, no aetiological function to derive. There was nothing to learn from it at all except, perhaps, that misery does not really love company. But, like a traffic accident, it certainly manages to attract it.

What’s in Your Wallet?

“In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to basic principles and simple actions.” – Winston Churchill

I was working on a project with a product management team from 3M. Usually I like to go down to their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, but this week, they decided to make the trip to the Small Office.

They flew in that evening. I picked them up at their hotel and we went to a fairly decent restaurant near the airport. Part way through the meal, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. Which meant I drove without my license. Which also meant that I had no credit or debit card with which to pay the bill. I was going to be the perfect host.

I spent the appetizers running through my options – which ran from silly to nilly. They didn’t know me here, so there was no reason to trust that I would return, say, the next day with the money. I have it on pretty good authority that washing dishes is not really a thing. And I left my magic wand at home with my wallet. So first pass… nothing.

Linus (of the Peanut cartoons), for whom happiness is a warm blanket, famously said “there is no problem so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from.” That option was evaluated here and it also came up wanting: I am too slow.

In a moment of lucidity, some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan. Excusing myself, I went to the washroom and, out of sight and ear shot, I called our incontrovertibly heroic CEO, the Man from Glad. If he could join us, he would pay the bill and no one would be the wiser. I knew he would answer his cell – he is 24/7 available under any and in all circumstances. But on this fateful night, he was already engaged and could not help me out.

Before returning to the dining room, I tried calling my wife. Perhaps she could think of something to save the day (night). I called the house – no answer. I called her cell phone – a flip top! no less – but, again, no answer. I left messages, but I had no expectation they would be received and acted upon in time… even assuming she would be in a position to help.

I’d been gone long enough that I had to worry they’d send in the cavalry. So I returned, heavy of heart and light of pocket, to my esteemed company.

Some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan.

I dragged out the meal, hoping for a miracle. Various cheeses. A kind of smoothie concocted of Cointreau, a rosé wine, strawberries and brown sugar. A wonderful desert named Marie Louise, made with lobster-stuffed grapefruit, sweetness and succulence. And so on, while the clocked ticked.

And just when I figured I had run out of time and options, in swept a guardian angel: my wife. She had received my message, found my wallet, jumped into a taxi and came to the restaurant. My guests looked up quizzically as she approached the table.

“Hi guys”, she said with a relaxed smile, as if she had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who she was. She explained to them that she was at a fashion show with girl friends and that, since she had heard so many good things about these people and since she was nearby anyway, perhaps she could join us for coffee.

I could not have been more impressed and more in love with my wife than I was at that moment.

If you’ve been following the Small Office for a while, you would know that stories inevitably become sagas. So, yes, our fairy tale would end happily ever after, but it was not quite over yet. Because just when I figured I’d been saved, in swept another guardian angel: our V.P. Sales, Bull Terrier. He had received a message from our coolheaded CEO, and came straightaway to the restaurant to help me out. My guests looked up quizzically as he approached the table.

“Hi guys”, he said with a relaxed smile, as if he had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who he was.

Well we all had one last Baileys for the road, as my wife surreptitiously slipped me my wallet. So no dishes, no magic wand, just the power of real friends.

I conclude this tale with a line from newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell: A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. With this, I must thankfully agree.

Going Bugs

Jack Anderson is a big man. Well, he’s a wide man anyway, with giant hands and an oversized head that fits uncomfortably on square shoulders. He is an important distributor for the Small Office and could, I guess, be forgiven for strutting about like a potentate. And flying like one with his very special toy, a Gulfstream IV corporate jet. He is extravagant to be sure, but generally manages to stop short of excess.

Our cordial and not quite so colossal CEO, the Man from Glad, Bull Terrier (our V.P. Sales) and I hosted Jack a couple of days ago. Our day began with the perfunctory coffee and muffins in a small conference room at our head office. It was one of those conference rooms with floor to ceiling glass on two sides, one looking in and the other looking out onto a grey Thursday morning.

Jack took his coffee black. He must have found the coffee quite to his taste, because he quaffed it rather quickly. While he talked, his thick hands casually reached out to the coffee pot and refilled his cup, a cool handcrafted ceramic mug that our marketing team acquired for us to use as gift items.

He had much to say over the next two hours and much to drink. At least four or five cups of coffee and, later, several small bottles of coke. This continued over lunch in reverse order, with coke the dominant drink followed by yet more coffee. Our curious and normally discreet CEO, his brow furrowed with concern, finally asked the question Bull and I had been withholding for the last few hours. He couldn’t help but notice that Jack was consuming an awful lot of caffeine. “I’d be on the ceiling by now”, he said.

Jack shrugged and explained how he was recently on vacation in South America – an Amazon cruise actually – and was bitten by some insect. He now has some unpronounceable and rather exotic disease and has to take a very strong medication for it. The medication makes him nauseous. The only cure for the nausea is caffeine. Hence all the coffee and cokes.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain.

There is Vietnamese folk tale that suggests the origin of the mosquito: A young man foolishly desired to resurrect his dead wife. She was a vain, self-serving kind of woman but, for reasons only known to him, he remained devoted to her. He made a deal with a genie to bring her back. All the resurrection would require was three drops of his blood.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain. Finally coming to his senses and deciding he no longer wanted any part of her, the young man asked for his three drops of blood back. Good riddance she thought to herself as she complied with his wish. She picked up a sharp knife and pricked the tip of her finger. But, as soon as the blood began to flow, the loathsome libertine died and shrivelled to a husk. She was reborn as the first mosquito. She set as her mission to bite her former husband, exact her three drops of blood, and return to human form. And, so the tale goes, to this day, mosquitoes bite humans, looking for that very same elixir of life.

So what, you may ask, is the connection between Caffeine Jack and the young man in our tiny tale? Well, nothing really. Unless, in their small obsessions, they were bitten by the same bug.

Cereal Killer

“Parsley is gharsley.” – Ogden Nash

Food is a recurring theme in the Small Office. Being at the top of the food chain likely means that you are going for breakfast. Food for thought would be the snacks they give out at brainstorming sessions.

Anyway, I was travelling with our CEO and resident gastronome, the Man from Glad. We met up with Bull Terrier and our regional manager for the Northeast, Kyle C., for breakfast.

I ordered first. Just a light breakfast: Chorizo Eggs Benedict comprising a poached egg, chorizo, roasted red peppers, Peppadew peppers, mozzarella and Hollandaise sauce, all on an English muffin, accompanied by home fries and applesauce.

Our more disciplined and clearly less voracious leader ordered a bowl of cereal. Bull Terrier followed with a muffin and Kyle C. a fruit cup.

What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes?

When the food came, the three looked at me like they were going to lay me out on a platter and stuff an apple in my mouth. What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes. After all, why eat prunes when the peaches are ripe, right?

Our steadfast CEO scooped up a spoonful of Honey Nut Cheerios with crispy oat flakes. Oats were apparently wild on this blustery morning. Bull Terrier picked at an oatmeal muffin stuffed uncomfortably with dates, cranberries and pecans. Kyle C.’s fruit cup was mostly melon.

I dove headfirst into my Benedictine delight, careful not to get any of the Hollandaise sauce on my suit. I would have artfully framed all that tsk-tsking and moral indignation as little more than jealousy, but my mouth was full.

If I am to be accused of anything, let it be that I have manners.

Double Dipping

The Sundance Kid was always one of my favorites. He was a marketing manager who I once described as “a sandy-haired, terminally under-dressed fortysomething with an idea a day, some of which actually worked”. He laughed easily, but there was an underlying sadness about him, likely related to an ailing child for whom prospects were dim. Marketing was, for the Kid, both a vocation and an escape. He had been with the company for a long time – long enough, in fact, to be part of our Defined Benefit Plan. And therein lies the sum and substance of our discontent.

The Kid is now in his early fifties, his hair infused with grey, making it less espresso and more caffè crema. The sadness is now permanently etched into the corners of his eyes which no amount of collagen will cure.

As it happened, he received a fairly lucrative offer from our largest competitor, one he could hardly refuse. The additional salary augmented by a pension would result in a significant cash flow increase for his family. Loyalties and prejudices aside, the Kid could hardly be blamed for jumping at the opportunity.

This was no comfort for our senior managers who felt he was feeding at two troughs. Because he knew our programs, products and practices so well – many of which he actually put in place – he could help our competitor while we paid for the privilege.

He was feeding at two troughs.

Bull Terrier was livid when this competitor beat us to market with a device he remembered first being sketched on the backside of a restaurant place mat. He asked Rigor Mortis if there was anything we could do to prevent the Kid from revealing trade secrets that possibly we legally owned. And he asked the Black Widow if we could withhold his pension, in whole or in part. And because he knew the Kid was my protégé, he asked if I could do something, anything at all.

Bull was met with a chorus of shrugs, eight from Black Widow, two each from the rest of us.

In truth, while I am sorry to see the Kid gone, I cannot have my conscience be his guide. He served us well when he served at our pleasure and, now, he serves himself and his family. So, yes, I cannot muster more than a shrug and a furrowed brow for show. I feel only slightly bad that I don’t feel worse.