NOTE: How you prepare for the possibility of an unexpected change in conditions and circumstances can be a blessing disguised as something else. Watch for those opportunities; they rarely give you a warning.
It finally happened.
After doing all my research about the company, the competition and the individual who made the decisions about the promotional marketing contract that was up for a review in just a few months, I was ready. I knew we could do a better job than the incumbent or any other competitors. I just needed to get in front of the VP of Marketing for an hour.
I called his assistant a number of times for the appointment and kept being put off. Her boss was on the road a lot, but with the contract review coming up in a few months, he knew he needed to interview competitors. Finally, she said those wonderful words I longed to hear: “Mr. Thompson has agreed to meet with you for one-hour next month. He will see you on Tuesday, the 15th, at 10am. Will that work for your schedule?” I confirmed that date and time immediately.
There were a few logistics to work out. This account was halfway across the country. I would need to book a flight and reserve a rental car, figure out where to stay the night before our meeting and try to secure any other appointments in that area, which, for the record, never seems to happen. I also had to postpone or reschedule all my appointments for that two-day trip.
Nevertheless, this opportunity was worth the effort. It was a high volume, high profit, perfect opportunity for us that could make our year. It also represented bragging rights for the person who won the next contract. In many ways, this opportunity was also important because I knew that my company could provide the best ideas, systems and creative input. I just needed to demonstrate our value.
After preparing for weeks, conferring with my superiors on what we could offer and preparing considerable information as leave-behinds, it was time. I hopped on the flight, picked up the rental, drove to the area and arrived in the early evening, just down the road from their company headquarters. I had dinner, retired to my room, checked in at home and then went over my materials again. I tried to sleep but was understandably restless. The next morning, I had breakfast and was at my prospect’s door fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, which, for me, was right on time. So far, so good. I had done this many times before. And yet . . .
“Change is the only constant in life.”
Greek Philosopher Heraclitus
Unbeknownst to me, however, a crisis had reached his office ahead of me. The company produces products that are sold in thousands of stores across the country, and I learned from the assistant and by overhearing conversations that a shipment of one of their most popular products contained defects. As a result, all of the stores were being told there was a recall, even though the defects were largely limited to just a few stores in the upper Northwest. Worse, the news media had already jumped on the story.
My timing couldn’t have been worse. In fact, from the outer office I could hear him shouting into the phone, then listening, then shouting some more. When he slammed down the receiver, his assistant popped out of her chair and headed for his office, gently tapping the door to announce herself and then dutifully mostly closing the door behind her. I could hear murmurs of frustration while various scenarios were racing through my mind. What was about to happen and how would it affect this meeting?
Things got very quiet. The assistant opened the door and invited me in. My demeanor remained totally professional: I elected not to acknowledge the elephant in the room, until the VP decided to share that information with me. My mission was to present a better company to work with for his Promotional Marketing needs. The best approach for me was to be patient and professional.
He shook my hand and motioned me to one of his two chairs in front of his desk as he took another call. He gestured a silent I’m sorry about this and I waived it off in an understanding way. Continuing his call, he turned toward the window.
“Yeah. This is Mark. Gather everyone and we’ll meet in the conference room. What? As soon as possible, yeah, everyone who needs to be there, and I will meet you there in 20 minutes. What? Yeah, I have a guy in my office I need to talk to, so I will be there as soon as I can.”
He sat down at his desk and picked up my business card I had placed in front of him. Studying it, he remembered that I had been referred to him by a mutual friend, Bob Young. A forced half-smile came across his face; “Just how is that ol’ dog Bob Young these days, anyway?” I replied that we still see each other weekly, usually to watch a football game and that Bob was just fine.
Assuming that I was wondering what was going on, he then offered that the crisis causing so much frustration was that several retail product shipments had been found to have defects, and the media was already reporting this bad publicity. He apologized again, or at least started to, but I cut him off and reassured him that I fully understood that this kind of crisis had to be dealt with immediately. I also acknowledged that it was obvious that we were only going to have 20 minutes together before his meeting in the conference room.
Ask yourself what you might do in this situation. Let’s look at the options I had before me.
Option One: I could push to do a 45-minute presentation in less than 20 for him.
- Even if I could do a decent 15-minute presentation, would I have his undivided attention? Would more calls to his office interrupt us? Would he remember any of it?
- How would that reflect on my company and me?
Option Two: I could ask for the opportunity to come back later that afternoon. I would have to change my flight, my rental car arrangements, rebook the hotel as well as cancel more of my appointments back home.
- Why would I expect him to be more attentive in the afternoon when the crisis situation was just ramping up?
- How would that reflect on my company and me?
Option Three: I could let him know of how this inconvenience was worthy of securing me an appointment for a month (possibly more) later.
- Knowing how hard it was to get this appointment, there was a good chance that he wouldn’t agree to another appointment until this crisis was handled, and, at this point, he might be gone for weeks. Pushing for an immediate reschedule didn’t seem appropriate for the level of professionalism I wanted to maintain, no matter what.
- How would that reflect on my company and me?
Option Four: My original mission was to win the 4-year Promotional Marketing contract. But what I witnessed was a prospect who, frankly, had a lot more on the line at the moment than learning about me and my company. He was filled with angst and frustration, no doubt running through his mind not only how this crisis happened in the first place, but also, now, what to do about it with minimal damage to his company’s reputation, a reputation now in jeopardy, thanks to the media coverage.
My decision was to respect this situation just as I would if we had already won the contract and our company was there to advise him.
People remember how you treated them and how you responded to a crisis. Just because I didn’t yet have the contract with his company, could I still be judged in how I would support him?
Remember, even though I never got a chance to put on the introductory show for him, I was still being observed. I was still on trial, only my trial was different. In this real-world situation, our company should be the one called into that meeting. Instead, my competition would be in the conference room shortly. If there was ever an opportunity to shine and demonstrate how good we are, now would be my best and perhaps only opportunity.
He watched as I put my materials back in my briefcase. I pulled out my notepad and pen and looked him straight in the eye. “Mr. Thompson,” I said, “with your permission, I’d like to use the remaining few minutes with you to talk about the crisis. We have been through similar situations several times where our clients needed our advice on optional ways to make a situation less damaging. Would you be willing to share more and allow me ask you some questions?” He looked down again at my card.
“Well, Dave, I guess we could talk about this. I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing, but I do appreciate that you would like to help.”
“Mr. Thompson, if we do get the opportunity to come back to see you, that would be terrific, and we would appreciate it. More to the immediate, however, let me arm you with some ideas that might help you go into your meeting better prepared with options. If we can help, there’s no better time than right now to talk about that.”
We talked. The twenty minutes went by quickly, but as he headed for his meeting, he told his assistant to set up an appointment for me to come back as soon as possible. I flew home later that afternoon. Over the course of several weeks, I checked in with his assistant and with him multiple times to follow up and learn more. We didn’t have a contract with him, yet, but I paid attention and made suggestions over the phone and email, anyway. I consistently followed up on everything, just like I would if we were the company they chose to work with.
Yes. We won the contract.