Open Your Eyes to the Bad News Wake-Up Call



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In this age of mobile phones that also double as a huge number of other useful gadgets, it’s curious that most hotels still offer wake-up call services. Most often the process is automated: the guest presses a button on the hotel room phone and a computer voice invites them to enter a four-digit combination in hours and minutes, denoting the time the following morning that they will be jolted out of a deep sleep by a loud, unfamiliar noise just feet away from their ear. What a way to begin the day.

As much as I despise the wake-up call and the startling commencement to the day, I still use them often. For an important morning meeting scheduled in another city — often in a time zone to which my internal clock is not adjusted — it provides the perfect insurance policy should I incorrectly set the alarm on my phone or forget to turn on the clock buzzer.

Hotel room alarms are not the only kinds of wake-up calls. Running a process manufacturing company a couple of decades ago, I was called into a meeting with our largest customer. And when I say largest customer, I mean largest customer. This client accounted for nearly 75% of our annual revenue and had some bad news to share: they had decided to move a significant amount of their manufacturing operations outside our region, most of it outside the country, which would take the need for our services along with it. During the ensuing 18 months, they moved away more than half of the work they had previously outsourced to our company. Now that was a wake-up call.

Another one came when we received a call from the purchasing manager of a major OEM. We had been working with his team for over a year to win a huge contract manufacturing project, one that would mean 20% growth for our business. We had invested tremendous resources in pursuing the project — traveling to their facility month after month, upgrading our processes to accommodate the work, devising a capacity plan that demonstrated we could handle the increased volume and enduring quality audits and financial reviews. It was a ton of work. Then came the call. “We’re sorry to inform you that our company has put a focus on working with Disadvantaged Business Enterprises,” he said. “That means another bidder who meets that criteria can be up to 5% higher in price, but we still have to award the work to them.” Can you say wake-up call?

On another occasion I came to the realization that the operations team of a new customer was literally sabotaging our work out of resentment that their purchasing department had moved the contract from their previous supplier. They were losing paperwork, mixing parts on the receiving dock and even damaging our products after they were delivered. Mind you, I’m a strong nonbeliever in conspiracies, so I fought the theories of our own team members who insisted this preposterous activity was taking place. Only after seeing it for myself, by personally auditing an order as it left our dock and then, unbeknownst to the perpetrators, doing the same a couple days after it arrived at the customer, did I have to acknowledge that we were indeed being sabotaged. Wake-up call.

Then there was this several years back: while sitting in a meeting and scrolling through Twitter, I came across a post from a company we considered a competitor. The photo stopped me in my tracks. There for the world to see was the competitor’s president and business development team, huge smiles on their faces, standing with the executive team of one of our top five customers. In 144 characters or less, the Twitter poster announced in all their glory the major relationship their team had just forged with our customer. The exodus of nearly all of that customer’s work followed shortly thereafter. How is that for a blaring phone blasting off next to your head at 4 a.m.?

Were these wake-up calls bad news? Of course they were. But bad news can also be a wake-up call. In the case of the 75% customer whose work moved offshore, its announcement was the catalyst for our company to launch our acquisition strategy and build out our business development efforts. Three years later, we had become bigger than we were before the large customer’s work departed and we had no customer that accounted for more than 25% of our business. We were a much stronger and sustainable company thanks to that wake-up call.

The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise situation put us on notice that large companies were changing their purchasing criteria, away somewhat from pure cost and on to other socially driven benchmarks. We stepped up our messaging about our environmental compliance and philanthropy to adjust and other customers became interested.

The sabotage episode was a reminder that we can elate the procurement department, but if the customer’s operations team isn’t on our side then we should run for the hills rather than having them forced to work with us. The great Twitter debacle was the result of our company not having a close enough relationship with the customer’s true decision makers, so we worked harder to build those relationships. And it turned out the Twitter poster’s company screwed up the transition of the contract so badly that we had the work back six months later. Winner.

Bad news is a wake-up call. Nothing more, nothing less.