Getting your back up in business

My mom volunteered to organize the purchase of sandwiches for a big seminar that was taking place at her church. She was careful to explain to the vendor that she was only estimating the number of lunches she would need. They agreed that she would provide an accurate number the day before the event.

But when she put in her order for 52 sandwiches, he cried foul. “I quoted you a price based on 100 lunches,” he said. “If it’s only 52, I need to raise the rate for each sandwich by $2.”

They’d never had a discussion about the per-sandwich rate changing if the actual count was lower than expected. And my mom had (wisely) saved copies of their email exchange. So she held her ground. Begrudgingly, the vendor gave her the 52 sandwiches at the original rate he’d quoted.

I’m sure my mom had a stomachache the whole time she was quietly challenging this businessman’s understanding of their agreement. She was still feeling bad about it when she told me what happened. Not because she thought she was wrong, but because she doesn’t like being the source of anyone’s distress.

I count on my mom’s wisdom and life experience to guide me through my own moments of distress. But this time, I felt like I had some insight of my own to offer.

As a small business owner myself, I could certainly relate to the sandwich vendor’s frustration. It is easy to get your back up when misunderstandings occur and you’re the one absorbing the financial blow. But you build a business by protecting your relationships first, foremost and no matter what. So sometimes you have to swallow your pride and do what’s best for your client. (As my grandfather, who owned a dry cleaning shop in western Pennsylvania, used to say, “The customer is always right.”)

And here’s something else. When I feel the most frustrated, it is often my own failures that are to blame. You have to own your part in any misunderstanding. Otherwise, you’re directing your frustration at the wrong person.

The sandwich vendor could have asked more questions and anticipated possible scenarios. He could have made it clear that the price break was only valid if the quantity was at least 100 and that he’d have to raise the per-unit rate if the order number was lower. I am quite sure he will not omit that information the next time he gets a large, but admittedly uncertain, estimate.


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