Aug 19

Loose lips can indeed sink ships

I was minding my own business at breakfast recently when a team of salespeople sidled into the booth next to me.

August 19 - orig They were dressed to the nines and clearly prepping for a major presentation. But, they were also projecting a distinct air of frustration and resignation. They then began a conversation loud enough for the entire room to overhear:

'We need to dial down the net prices on the dials or The Widget Company simply won't buy from us,' stated the apparent group leader.

'If we do that, say good-bye to any profit for the home office and any commissions for us,' lamented a second.

'We have no choice,' chimed in a third. 'I get the feeling that if we don't come back with a sale to Widget, we better not come back at all.'

'Damn recession!' said the leader. The others nodded dejectedly and tore into their waffles.

I found the conversation fascinating on a number of fronts. First, it vaguely reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, my all-time favorite movie about the business world. Second, it reinforced how brutally difficult it must be to sell a commodity such as a dial. I'm sure it's difficult in the best of times. But, try selling it when there are no value adds beyond price, quality, and service, and the prospective customer is gouging prices across the board. Talk about grim.

The conversation also got me thinking about the dangers of a public discourse. Suppose I'd been a member of the Widget Company team that the breakfast club would be pitching later on? Odds are good I would have tipped off my bosses about their complaints and suggested we select a competitor instead.

Just such a scenario happened to me long ago and far away. I was the junior person on a team that had just pitched and won a consumer product from one of the largest companies in the world. We were celebrating on the flight home and reminiscing about the presentation. One thing led to another, and we soon started mimicking some of the client-side characters and criticizing the way they spoke, the way they acted, the clothes they wore, etc. It got ugly.

Fast forward to the next morning. The pitch team was summoned to the New York general manager's office. He lit into us and said we'd just been fired by the brand-new client. We were shocked. What could have happened? Then, our boss began reciting verbatim some of our in-air mocking of the client team. Apparently, another employee had been sitting nearby, overheard our remarks and fed them back to the soon-to-be-former clients.

We were stunned, to say the least. It was a great, if painful, learning lesson as well. I now always make a point to withhold any comments, pro or con, until I'm positive I'm out of ear shot.

I wish the breakfast club guys well in their dial sales pitch, but they need to learn to dial down the bitching and moaning in public settings. The account they save may be their own.

*Thanks to Michael Dresner for the idea behind this post.