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Trouble

November 22, 2009

On several recent occasions I have been asked to review letters that were being written concerning significant business problems. One business had repeatedly failed to meet a commitment to a major customer and the other was delinquent on payments to its vendors.

As I reviewed those letters I recalled some advice I had given to two boys a few years back. In the process of pulling a relatively harmless springtime prank, they had been discovered. As you would anticipate, they panicked and ran. While fleeing, they nearly got into more trouble. Arriving at my kitchen breathless and concerned, they felt a need to confess their sins.

They were good kids, so I first told them that although they really shouldn’t have engaged in the activities that they had, it wasn’t really all that bad. Also I added, there weren’t many adults who had escaped adolescence without having been in a little trouble themselves. While it may not always seem so, if you stand up and face your difficulties, people will generally be more understanding than you might anticipate.

I told them that the next time they get caught doing something that they shouldn’t, they should do four things. First, stop doing what you’re doing. Second, identify yourself. Third, apologize for what you have done. And finally, make amends as best you can.

Businesses aren’t all that dissimilar from mischievous youth in springtime from time to time. Similar advice might be in order.

To begin with there are very few businesses that have been around long enough to be successful that haven’t had some problems in the past. Most experienced business people will be surprisingly understanding of your problems and mistakes if you deal with them in a forthright manner.

The unforgivable sin is to run or hide from your problems. Just like those two boys on that spring afternoon, running from the problem only makes it worse. The business equivalent of running is commonplace. It manifests itself in unreturned telephone calls and unrealistic promises, both of which accomplish little other than provide temporary relief. But hiding will only make the problem worse once you’re eventually exposed. In editing the letters that my business associates had written, I found myself incorporating the advice I had given those mischievous boys several years earlier.

If necessary, begin by introducing or identifying yourself. “I am the owner of XYZ Corp.” People are more understanding of problems if they have a face behind them. Don’t send letters from “the sales department” or some other faceless functionary. Step up and take your punishment like a man or woman.

If the letter is about apologizing for a problem or a screw-up, don’t beat around the bush. Apologize! Don’t make excuses or attempt to obfuscate the issues, that will only get the other party arguing with you about who is at fault and who is being hurt. When it’s your fault, come right out and say so, you’ll be surprised how understanding most people will be. Being forthright in admitting your mistakes is a disarming strategy that can win you a lot of points.

In business it’s not always as easy to stop doing what you’ve been doing as it is when you’re a teenager. Sometimes a late payment, quality or delivery problems can’t be solved overnight. But you sure can fess up to what you’ve been doing and put forth a sensible plan and timetable for how you will remedy the problem in the future.

Business problems are never totally one sided. When you’ve got a problem it’s easy to be defensive and look to shifting part of the blame to others. My experience is that when you are defensive, it only makes the other party less sympathetic. Don’t forget that your goof has caused them problems too. Your unpaid bill may well mean they too have problems paying their bills.

Next time you get yourself in one of those business cracks that all successful businesses find themselves in from time to time, remember the advice given to those mischievous youths. It seemed to keep them out of trouble (as far as I heard anyway) and it helped contribute to a couple of good letters.

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