Paul Ericksen
Industryweek 14135 Corn Dogs

A Caviar Appetite on a Corn Dog Budget

Dec. 26, 2015
Don't be the type of executive who actually works to develop and apply gotcha moments as a prime strategy for positioning negotiations.

A client of mine had an interesting experience that can be used to distinguish differences between Next Generation and traditional Supply Management. This client is a Fortune 100-ish sized company and the largest manufacturer of product in their industry. In fact, they have only two significant competitors and my client’s sales represent well over 50% of all industry purchases. Unfortunately, this success had led to a large order back-up and new ones taking well over a year to satisfy—and, in fact, this was one of the issues I had been brought in to help address.

The bottom line, however, is that this company was exposed to market share loss with potential customers who needed more timely order satisfaction. In fact, the backlog had already resulted in an important customer transferring one of its new orders to a competitor. This, of course, was reacted to with concern by my client, who requested a meeting with that customer’s senior executives.

Losing business with a significant customer is a very big deal in corporate America and my client was pulling out all of the stops in preparing for the meeting. Front-door parking was set up for the customer’s representatives and the morning of the meeting I walked by a couple makes and models of cars I was aware of but had never seen up close in person. For instance, one was a Lamborghini Gallardo convertible, which lists north of $200K, if I remember right. Anyway, this should give you a tone of the participants for this “get together.”

Those of you who work in industry likely understand the truth in about what I’m about to lay out. Specifically, smooth operations in the corporate world are largely due to the efforts of competent executive assistants. That’s one reason why whenever I accept a consulting engagement I make an effort to establish good relationships with all such individuals. In fact, I’ve heard of consultants being “shown the door” based primarily upon the observations of a key executive assistant, so ‘nuff said! Anyway, my client had assigned their top executive assistant person to set-up the meeting in the boardroom, including refreshments and lunch. Having participated in some previous higher level meetings with this client I knew that they’d be doing all they could to ensure that this customer in particular was shown a welcoming environment.

Halfway through the day—the meeting had started in the morning—I was walking past the desk of the executive assistant who had been put in charge of the meeting and saw she was on the verge of crying. I stopped to find out what was wrong and she told me the following. The caterer for the lunch was a regular in the building and because of this was given free-reign in the setting up of meals for meetings, which was done in a room adjacent to the boardroom. Meals were then served by raising a roll top-deck type barrier between it and the meeting room. The menu laid out for the day was top notch for both refreshments and lunch, and everything went pretty much to script throughout the morning. As the meeting broke for lunch the roll top barrier was raised and to the astonishment of my client’s personnel, the primary entrée for the lunch was corn dogs.

I’m from the Midwest and have found memories as a child of consuming mountains of corn dogs while attending our county’s annual summer fair. Basically, corn dogs are wieners on a stick that have been cooked within corn-bread type wrap. As I’ve grown older, though, and my digestive system has aged, I’ve avoided them since today eating one is akin to dropping a hand grenade down my gullet! Anyway, you can imagine the horror of the executive assistant as this meal was uncovered, i.e., it was too late to re-order lunch and she was pretty sure this was going to be her last day on the job.

In negotiating terms, this gaffe represented what could be called a “gotcha moment” for my client’s customer. Gotcha moments are those awkward times in discourse or action where something is inherently wrong and could be considered or turned into “a slight.” I’m pretty sure that executives who drive Lamborghinis aren’t used to being “wined and dined” with corn dogs and I was really interested in how this lapse in meeting preparation was going to influence the day’s negotiations.

Gotcha moments can lead to a couple of different outcomes. In traditional “win-lose” negotiations they are typically used to increase the pressure and leverage on the offending party. I once knew a buyer who actually worked to develop and apply gotcha moments as a prime strategy for positioning negotiations. People involved in Next Generation Supply Management relationships generally don’t look for and/or seek to apply gotcha moments, and in fact when they come up, usually look to give the other party the benefit of the doubt. And, thankfully, that’s what happened here.

The president of the customer’s company also happened to be from the Midwest and as a youth had himself attended county fairs. When he heard of the secretary’s angst over the error he excused himself from the meeting, walked over to her desk and thanked her for bringing back happy memories of his youthful county fair experiences. What a nice guy! At the end of the day I heard that the negotiations had been successful with the lost business being regained, but even before then I knew that this would occur given how the customer’s president had treated the executive assistant. In other words, he used the “gotcha moment” as an opportunity to firm up rather than break down the customer-supplier relationship. And, it goes without saying that as far as the executive assistant involved was concerned, this customer can “do no wrong” and will receive “kid glove” treatment from her for the rest of her natural days!

So what happened with the lunch order? It turns out the error was the result of confluence of two out-of-the-ordinary events. By chance, the caterer that day was engaged in providing two lunch orders—one at my client and one at the factory next door. My client’s order was for an executive lunch while the other was for an outdoor production employee award picnic. Add to this that the caterer’s regular server was out sick that day and had been back-filled by a new employee who got the addresses mixed up. The caterer was as mortified as the executive assistant. But you know what? My client also ended up giving them the “benefit of the doubt” and in discussing the mistake didn’t request any retribution for the person who had made the error. Instead, the error was used as a learning experience and I suspect that the caterer will NEVER have to worry about that employee making that kind of mistake again. And, I also suspect my client will forever receive “kid glove” treatment from this particular caterer going forward.

In negotiations, intent sets the table for just about everything. The corn dog incident could have turned out very differently if both parties hadn’t been looking for the middle ground. I’m sorry but I can’t help but say it—U.S. politics today seems to be pretty much based on setting up and applying gotcha moments to increase leverage. Again, I’ll repeat the mantra I’ve been preaching recently about how to fix U.S. politics—to be more effective and accountable our politicians need to operate and be judged like we are in business.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been asked more than a few times whether my “stories” are really true. They are. The picture at the front of this column is an actual one of the serving plates from the meeting discussed in this column. It was after the meeting and you’ll notice there are more than a few corn dogs left over. This shouldn’t be surprising—corn dogs really can be gut bombs!

My next column will focus on a positive story about government involvement in economic development.

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