November 2004

90 Percent Mental

Nothing confounds customers, irks employees and promotes mediocrity quite like a manager who lacks a consistently fair approach to doing business.

By Anthony Noel

It's a familiar phrase, one we've all heard and probably said: Life is unfair.

This month, as we delve more deeply into Overall Management Approach — the fifth and final operational area we'll cover in the "Fatal Mistakes" series — acknowledgment of life's unfairness will be our touchstone. Because while life may be unfair, your approach to managing customers, employees and business in general should not be.

There are precious few things we can control in life. Bad things happen to good people every day, and, even more vexing, good things seem to happen to bad people pretty darned often as well. Trying to change these truths is usually futile, at least in the grand scheme of life.

But if you're reading this, odds are high that in your life, you either made the decision to go into business for yourself, are seriously thinking about it, or take your role as a manager in someone else's operation quite seriously — even personally. No matter which of these describes you, if you are often concerned about how your company's image reflects upon you, read on.

We've all found ourselves in situations where we are not getting what we want and strongly feel the reason is that we simply are not being treated fairly. Few things produce such profound feelings of frustration.

An acquaintance, or a company, may deny what seems to us a perfectly reasonable request, or fails to acknowledge a wrong they've committed, let alone try to make it right. Often the wrong in question is the result of an arbitrary policy or lopsided reasoning.

In the worst examples of such behavior, the offending party might seem to be singling us out for treatment they would never inflict on someone else. In truth, they probably would inflict it on someone else, and probably do all the time — but our anger and frustration is so aroused that the natural next question we, as humans, tend to ask is "Why me?"rather than "What are you thinking, you moron?"

Unfair treatment makes people feel victimized and in something less than full control of their faculties. "What's going on here?" we wonder. "Have I gone crazy?"

It stands to reason that people who are made to feel that way are not likely to continue associating with those who give them such feelings. Not a small number of businesses have been launched specifically because one day, an employee got fed up with his or her "superiors" and decided to run things his or her own way — a better way. A different way.

The fair way.

I'll resist the temptation to use a golf analogy here — okay, no I won't.

Follow any professional golfer around the course for an entire match, and you're bound to notice something that's not quite so evident on television. Whether they are having a great day or a not-so-great one, professionals do the same things over and over again, in terms of how they prepare to strike the ball. It's called the "pre-shot routine," and pro golfers are utterly robotic about it. Just about any pro will quickly attest that the surest way they know of to go from great or marginal play to unbelievably lousy play is by NOT following their pre-shot routine on every single shot.

It's often said that golf — like other sports — is 90 percent mental. I submit that the same is true of business, and not understanding this may be the most Fatal Mistake of all.

Yes, there is actual labor to be performed ("shots to be made," to carry the analogy through). Cabinets, furniture, millwork and the other items we produce must be cut, assembled, shipped and installed. But none of that can happen without willing accomplices: your customers, employees, and suppliers. "Willing" being the operative word.

Cultivating the very best work from your willing accomplices is not rocket science, but it does require mental work. Use your mental power to recall how dehumanized you've felt anytime you were treated unfairly, and you'll go to great lengths to ensure neither you nor anyone else at your company is ever responsible for giving the people who count on you that same crummy feeling.

Achieving this goal in every interaction demands consistency. It means establishing policies and encouraging behaviors in yourself and all your employees that consistently place the highest possible value on conducting business in a fair, ethical and considerate manner.

Back in June, as we looked at the operational area of Costs, a scenario was briefly mentioned where a decision might be made to juggle the production schedule to satisfy a quick turnaround required by a customer. At the time, we said such action should never be taken without substantially increasing the regular price of the work. (And you should increase it even more if doing the job will require overtime hours.)

But there are other ramifications of such a decision that must be dealt with as well, if you want to build and maintain a reputation for fairness; ramifications that only become evident if you're willing to call upon your mental capacities and think the decision through from the perspective of everyone it could affect.

If you insert this job into the production schedule, there is a strong likelihood that completion dates on another job (or jobs) will change. If you have even a glimmer of doubt that an in-process job will make its deadline, you must call the customer immediately and inform them.

You should provide an approximate percentage on the likelihood that their job will be delayed - for example, "Mr. Jones, I think there's a 50-50 chance that we won't make the date," or "There's an 80 percent chance that we'll still get your job done on time."

Then you must ask, point-blank, if they're okay with the potential delay. If you regularly provide work to an industry with inflexible dates and/or common shortening of lead-times, agreeing to put a quick-turnaround job into the schedule may prove to be far more trouble than it's worth, no matter what the job's worth may be.

If you've embraced some of suggestions offered in this series so far, you should have a good idea about your production capacities. Pretending those capacities are boundless, along with trying to appease one customer at the risk of disgruntling others, is not merely foolish but quite simply unfair. And it's just one example of unfairness that you have the power to avoid visiting upon other people.

Other examples are innumerable and come down to an unflagging commitment to treating everyone you deal with as you would hope they would treat you if the roles were reversed. A couple more:

You suspect a sheet goods vendor has inadvertently undercharged you for material which he quoted much higher during the estimating process. It's a wrong you can right with a simple phone call.

Your employees busted it all month, and it shows in your latest profit-and-loss statement. They gave you their all and then some. How will you reciprocate?

But consistency isn't all sunshine and lollipops. It is difficult, for example, to go back to that customer who wants you to shoehorn his job into your production schedule and say no. If he's someone you've chased for a long time and this is the potential breakthrough job, it's tougher yet. But it has to be done, and explained calmly, rationally and preferably in person. And there's not a thing wrong with emphasizing your commitment to fair play.

He may not fully understand - and even less likely, appreciate - your consistency that day, but he will when he begins to benefit by it himself as a consistent customer.

Next month, we'll close out the "Fatal Mistakes" series with a look at consistency's essential counterpart: Change.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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