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.

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.

But Words Are All I Have

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” – The Bible, St. Matthew 7:20

For most people, that is to say, for ordinary people, what we feel we can do and what we actually do are seldom the same thing. Patrick K. is a very ordinary person making an extraordinary salary and, frankly, for the salary, we thought he would do more.

PK is a senior account manager. Having been around a long time, he is well known in the industry. But being well known in the industry is like being a large hen in a henhouse. So what? If you want to make an impression – if you really want to impress the hens – hire a fox.

In fact, the Small Office recruited PK away from a competitor based primarily on a reputation he himself carefully cultivated for over twenty years. But reputation is a shadow. It gets longer or shorter depending on where you stand. Ultimately, it disappears in the light of day.

If you truly want to impress the hens, hire a fox.

PK certainly talks the talk and in the evangelist role for which he was hired, I suppose that should be good enough. But it is a year later and PK is still talking. And talking. And in all that time, I have not found that he has had a singular thought of his own. Winston Churchill once said that large views will always triumph over small ideas. But what triumph is there over one who has no ideas at all.

He can come up with a perfectly compelling argument, but here, in the land of PowerPoint, PK has yet to put together a cohesive presentation. He cannot analyze, strategize or plan. How could he have advanced his career to this level without any skills whatsoever?

The last straw for me came yesterday when we visited a potential client that PK has been wooing for months. He has wined them and dined them and placed their company on a pedestal like it was the Statue of Liberty and we were the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of some teeming shore.

Shortly after our arrival, a senior manager from this potential client leaned over to me and said, curiously, “So what is it that your company does?” I was astonished.

Perhaps that is PK’s greatest strength. Having virtually nothing to work with, he still manages to astonish. That alone is an achievement worthy of note.

Sew to Speak

A company in Tennessee supplies the Small Office with certain proprietary technologies. A group of their technical people, including their CTO, came to visit us the other day.

The CTO is a shortish, somewhat roundish, white-haired gentleman with a broad smile. He wore grey pinstriped pants held up by bright red suspenders. With his matching red bowtie, he looked a bit like Tweedledee come of age.

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’” (from Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

We brought them to a conference room. On a side table, coffee, tea, water, muffins, cookies. With their in-flight service meager, they were more than happy to sample our wares. We then made our way to the large, glass-covered table for discussions on extending their contract for another two years.

“The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.”

The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

Before we started, the CTO pointed to a tear in his pants that he sustained in his travels and wondered if we had a sewing needle and thread. It was a very odd business, but I went along. I spoke to Sue O., my assistant, and she was able to produce both a needle and an assortment of threads from her purse. I returned to the conference room and handed over the tools of the tailoring trade. The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

We picked up the discussion on the contract, settling everything quickly since both sides were happy with a straight extension. The CTO put his pants back on, slung the suspenders over his shoulder, and handed back the needle and thread. I guess I must have scratched my head and opined that nobody here would have done that. And most probably can’t. He, however, found it not the least bit strange, a simple repair and on with business. “’Caint’ never could do nothing, “ he said matter-of-factly.

“Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.”

What’s the Point?

We were on a fact-finding mission with a sizeable new customer. The objective was to understand how they saw the relationship, where they positioned us versus our competitors, which products they would carry, how they would introduce our lines to their staff, and so on. Because I was in the area, I agreed to drop in and lend some weight to the proceedings.

Jared, the sales rep, was there primarily to make introductions. The original plan was to have the Sales Manager do that, but a last minute screw-up with a flight put the local rep on the line. Jan, who was recently and with good cause promoted to manage our Customer Care Center, and the appropriate product line manager were also there. On the customer side, a half dozen souls showed up, several of which were still in diapers. I wondered who organized this session.

He quickly fell back into his comfort zone.

The meeting was not well planned. The rep was not part of the implementation team per se and it showed. He didn’t quite understand the purpose of a kick-off session, so he quickly fell back into his comfort zone. That zone is called PowerPoint. The Small Office PowerPoints everything eventually. The problem is, there was no need for a presentation at all. The sales job was already done. A contract had already been signed. It was now time to move forward, to get information.

There were questions, but they were mostly posed by the customer. There were muffins and handshakes and nice to meet you and looking forward to working with you. In short, the meeting was a waste of time.

Ike, the Sales Manager, felt guilty over his no-show and was grateful that Jared was willing to cover for him. Jan was new to this kind of meeting so she could hardly be blamed for what did or did not transpire. Ike didn’t want anyone to feel bad, so he told them he heard it went really well, great start, lovin’ it.

But, unlike Ike, I was there. And I was not lovin’ it. To paraphrase Churchill, the cause was there, the people were there, the chance was there. And we left chance behind. One of us would have to let them know so that it wouldn’t happen again.

RSVP

“Nothing is often a good thing to do and always a good thing to say.” – Will Durant

“Before you say anything, count to 10 and then don’t say it.” – My mother

One of our important customers made a request that I considered a non-starter. As it happened, this request turned into a saga with a most inauspicious start and an uncertain end.

Duncan L., their VP responsible for purchasing and logistics, has worked with the Small Office for many years and has known me for at least half of them. Our relationship is cordial, stopping at the level of mutual respect.

Duncan looks a bit like Clark Gable would have looked if he were less good looking. He is humorous in the deadpan way of Steven Wright and would be as funny if Steven Wright were actually less funny. In short, he has a lot going for him if your expectations were slightly reduced.

I received an email from Cowboy Bob who was forwarding a query from Duncan. Apparently, one of his company’s competitors had a promotional special that month and Duncan was looking for support to match the promotion. But specials are built into each customer’s purchasing agreement and there was a lot of room in the deal Duncan had to work with to easily match this promotion if he so desired. Which he shouldn’t because the special wasn’t interesting enough to be impactful anyway.

My organs… began to shut down.

I was having a tough day and was in no mood for the verbal sparring that I could imagine Cowboy Bob had to endure in what is always a back and forth when Duncan is on the case. I decided to get right to the point and typed a curt NFW. Which, of course, merely stood for Not Financially Workable. Or, equally, No Funds Warranted. Or, perhaps, Newcastle Fashion Week… which is surely on the top of someone’s social calendar. I then clicked the SEND button, satisfied with the content and brevity of the response.

In the very instant my finger touched the SEND key I realized, to my horror, that I did not just REPLY but that I replied TO ALL. Duncan and all his colleagues who he had copied would have received it too. My heart stopped beating. I felt dizzy as the blood drained from my head. My organs – starting with the liver – began to shut down. My thoughts then went to Poor Cowboy Bob who, I could imagine, was now quaking right down to his Limited Edition Cognac Caiman boots.

Now you don’t need a Nobelpreise Fuer Wirtschaftswiss to figure out how Duncan responded when he received my reply. Apparently it was circulated widely, then printed out and posted on the bulletin board in the company’s main conference room. I was told it was now being used as a dartboard.

The first rule of holes is that when you are in one, you stop digging. I decided the best approach was to lay low in the firm belief that this too shall pass. I went dark. And just like that, I had No Further Worries.

The King of Id

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” – Donald Trump

There is an account we have been chasing almost as long as I’ve been in the Small Office. It is not a huge account and securing its business would not materially change our fortunes. But it is strategically important in that it is a segment leader and politically well connected in its home state.

The president is generally unlikeable. He is a stump of a man with chia pet hair and a poor complexion. He has a sly smile and a sizeable gut, giving him the appearance of one who had swallowed both the cat and the canary. Now I’m sure it’s not his fault he’s ugly and I’m sure he has had his reasons for spurning our advances, but one could wonder if life is too short to chase after a prize not worth winning.

He opined in his smarmy, oleaginous way that our major competitor is larger than us, ironically expressing his belief that size matters. Our rangy and very aristocratic CEO, the Man from Glad, decided it was time to give him a run for his money. So we invited him to visit our largest operation, a state-of-the-art facility that looks more like a university campus than it does a manufacturing plant and distribution center. The site covers every bit of 14 acres.

What is play to the cat is death to the mouse.

“Judge me by my size do you?” said Yoda. Our long-legged leader walked our prospect from building to building, inside and outside, hither and thither, through engineering and our test labs and the warehouse and the sales office, retracing his path, crisscrossing and re-crossing and double-crossing our foolish prey. With his long strides, he had our visitor running ragged, desperate to keep up and, more importantly, look like he was keeping up. What is play to the cat is death to the mouse. Rivulets of sweat ran down Chia’s layered forehead and sagging cheeks. By the time he returned to the conference room to resume discussions, his ego had melted into a soggy, sorry mess.

Oh yes, for good measure and best effect, just after the two had set off on their magical mystery tour, we turned up the heat in the conference room just a notch.

And so it was that Chia was suitably humbled, the dismissive seeds he had sown coming back to him in exact kind.