Volume 42, Issue 9 - September 2007
by Lyle R. Hill
I’m not sure which hurt more … making the mistake or having to apologize for it. But either way, I had a problem … a big problem … and a call had to be made and an appropriate apology tendered. I had broken a promise and there are few things, from a business or personal point of view, that are worse than breaking a promise. Breaking a promise is a first cousin to telling a lie.
To make matters worse, the party wronged by me was a good customer. A long-term, loyal, fair, pays-his-bills-on-time customer. Not that it should matter, of course. And the only excuse I had was that oft-used (yet this time totally accurate) one … I forgot!
Having stalled as long as I could, I picked up the phone and punched in the numbers from memory. After two unanswered rings I sat up a little straighter, thinking that I was going to get by with just a voicemail apology. But halfway through the third ring, he answered.
“This is Steve,” he stated energetically, “how can I help you?”
“Hey, Steve,” I quickly responded, trying to sound upbeat, “it’s Lyle.”
“Great timing, Lyle. I was just getting ready to call you.”
Sure he was getting ready to call me, and probably not to wish me a pleasant day either. And was I wrong or did I detect an edge to his voice?
“Well, Steve, then I guess I saved you a dime … or is it a quarter now?” I said trying to sound a little light.
“I’m not sure, Lyle, but either way you saved me from having to look up your phone number.”
Who was he trying to kid that he was going to have to look up my number? He’s called me hundreds of times over the years and I’m sure he knows the number.
“Maybe it was mental telepathy. But tell me, why were you calling me?”
“Actually, Lyle, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday’s bidding for that new bank building in Lombard.”
He was upset alright, and I guess he had every right to be. I had promised him that I would bid the job aggressively because he had told me that he wanted to make a good impression on both the developer and owner’s representative. A lot was at stake for this was to be the first of three similar facilities that would all be built within the next 18 months and Steve’s goal was to get all of them.
“OK, Steve, go ahead,” I replied, bracing for the tongue lashing I deserved.
“Well, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I wanted you to be aggressive on this and you had promised that you would be. As I said to you, help me out on this one and I’ll make it up to you downstream. And I’m a man of my word, Lyle.”
Oh boy, now I really felt terrible. And that “man of my word” line—ouch!
“You know,” he continued, “I wasn’t the only general contractor chasing the job. I had some pretty stiff competition on this thing. And while it was true that the final numbers were not going to be the only determining factor, I had hoped to be low anyway.”
His voice had become stern, like a father would use to lecture an errant son.
“Steve,” I stammered as I slunk down into my chair, “did you get the job?”
“Yes. But barely.”
“Oh, Steve, I’m so relieved.”
“Me too, Lyle. But listen, I really need your help. I got the job using your number but your price really wasn’t any better than the other bids that I got for your scope of work. In fact, they were all just about the same, so I need you to see if you can squeeze a little something out of it. And then we need to really make this thing sail. But high-quality as well, Lyle. You know what I’m looking for.”
I was confused. I hadn’t bid the job. The untouched blueprints were still rolled up next to my desk. How could he have used my number unless perhaps he had become confused and assumed that somebody else’s bid was mine?
“Tell me, Steve, what do you want to spend on this thing?”
“Well, Lyle, all of the bids for your work came in around $42,000. I’d really like to award you a contract for $39,000 but like I said, I’ll try to get you a little more on the next two because as you know, if we perform well on the first one, there are two more to follow.”
Could this really be happening? I sat up straight and gripped the phone tighter.
“We might be able to make this work, Steve, but give me about 48 hours to look the thing over.”
“Thanks, Lyle, and, listen, I know I was a little too pushy there but I’ve been working pretty hard lately.”
“I understand, Steve.”
“Please accept my apology anyway.”
“Not a big problem, Steve. In fact, it’s not a problem at all.”
the author: Lyle Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago. Mr. Hill’s opinions are solely his own and not necessarily those of this magazine.