How people who are exceptional at what they do can still really screw things up

by Ivan Mazour

0537.bad_2D00_customer_2D00_serviceFor pretty much this whole year, I’ve been truly struggling with two companies I’ve been working with. One is a service provider to me directly, and the other is a service provider to my company, Ometria. And the two situations were so similar that I couldn’t help trying to work out how things went so wrong.

Both companies were service companies – providing a required skilled service in exchange for a fixed fee. In both cases, I followed the exact same process when deciding to work with them.

I had come across the companies because they had done an excellent job for people I knew personally. So when I realised I needed the service, I asked for an informal reference, and when it was a good one made a preliminary decision to go ahead.

However I’d long ago learned to not ever just go with the first supplier, but always go through a tender process. This provides many benefits – getting a sanity check on costs, having a fall-back option, double checking that I haven’t missed anything in my original specification, that kind of thing. So in both cases, I asked a couple of their competitors to pitch their services. But realistically, the decision had been made even before this process – the other companies would have needed to truly wow me to have a chance of displacing the original ones.

So (switching to the singular for simplicity, but still referring to both) we’ve got a vetted company, one that has demonstrated being able to do a fantastic job, and one that’s successfully gone through a competitive process for validation. So far so good – a rational process, with the optimal decision taken.

The founder of the company comes for the original pitch. He is charismatic, with a confidence developed through years of success. The confidence is seductive. Here is a person who knows what he is doing – he can be trusted to get things done, and done exceptionally well. I want to work with him. We go for lunch to chat about business and entrepreneurship. I relate to what he is doing – I’ve built service businesses before, and know how hard it is, but how great it is when you get them right.

The expectation is set. It is that he and his team will handle everything. I don’t need to worry. I can focus on my responsibilities. Targets are set, monitoring and communication is discussed. A member of the team is allocated to be the main point of contact, but of course the founder will be involved directly as well. They are only as good as their last piece of work. It’s a people business.

The initial push is impressive. The work is done, and it’s done well. The output is beyond expectation – they are good at what they do, and they prove it. I am excited to be working with them, and spend months telling everyone how great they are. They sign up new clients, one after another, on my recommendation. I’m pleased to be helping them – and I figure that it will make them more likely to give my work even more attention.

Some time goes by. Nothing much happens. But I’m not worried. The founder did say to leave it with him. He’s on top of things. An e-mail is sent to the founder, mentioning that nothing has been done in recent months. A casual response comes back – let me double check, but nothing to worry about, everything is on track, the contact I’ve allocated to you is very good and knows what he is doing.

Some more time goes by. Other stakeholders start to question the company’s ability to deliver. The original push is long forgotten – all anyone notices is how nothing else has been done, and how communication is mainly brushed aside. I start feeling the pressure. After all it was my decision to hire them, and so the responsibility for any failure is mine, entirely. I am unwilling to lose control of the situation, and even more unwilling to show that to everyone else.

The tone of my e-mails starts to get stronger. Until finally I cannot take being ignored any longer, and my tone becomes aggressive, verging on rude. Nothing else is working, so what do I have left.. A response comes back from the founder – a request for a call. On the call the matter is discussed. I explain that it is clear that our work has been hugely deprioritised. The founder explains that they have a number of other big jobs on. I am shocked at how unprofessional it is to mention this. Promises are made to put everything right.

I set out a communication process that I expect to be followed. Ad-hoc communication has led to this disagreement, and I want us to be top of their mind on a regular basis. A weekly update e-mail is agreed on both sides – though I personally feel this is not often enough, I choose not to push it.

At this point the stories diverge. Company 1, a supplier to Ometria, sorts itself out. Suddenly our work is prioritised. The updates come, even more often than requested. The output is once again on the same level as it was at the beginning. It’s like a reset switch has been pressed – like we were literally brushed under the carpet, and have been found and placed on top of the to-do pile again (a ridiculously non-digital analogy). They achieve their most impressive outcome yet, and the contact e-mails saying he will be back in touch with a further update later on that day. Things are good.

Company 2, a supplier to me personally, does not.. Once again requests are ignored. Another e-mail comes explaining how they have a much bigger job on, and that we should understand that at some point in the future we will expect them to focus on us and ignore everyone else. The e-mail says everything is on track, but I know that it isn’t. Deep down I know these people are great at their job. On the surface, the outcome will be phenomenal. But if things continue like this, the details will be missed – and it’s those details that I care about. It’s those details that make things great.

Would I recommend Company 1 again? Without a doubt. And I’ve been doing it throughout the process. Would I recommend Company 2? Well a few months ago my answer would have been hell no.. I ended up telling them that I wouldn’t hire them as an unpaid intern. If you take the Ometria Culture deck, and invert it, you would get them. But the thing is, they absolutely nailed the final outcome. Details were missed, definitely, and during the process the client, me, felt marginalised and ignored. But the overall quality was so beyond what any of their competition could have done, that if I had to do it again, I would definitely choose them.

So that’s the story, and it’s relevant to all of us. Because if you’re running a business, if you’re consulting, or if you’re an employee, there are clients – there are people you are doing work for. I have clients – retailers using Ometria – and I am terrified of my company ever being seen in this light. Even if the results are amazing. Truly terrified that people will come out of the experience feeling disappointed.

So I’ve spent some time thinking about it, and have broken it down into six takeaways.

Six core takeaways to ensure you don’t screw things up like they did:

1. Expectations. Do not overpromise and underdeliver. Most people say underpromise and overdeliver, but that’s easy to say and hard to do. So I like to see it from the other side. Curb your natural desire to overpromise. Many great companies have built a reputation of failure because of this. And if you do make promises, then keep them in writing somewhere, and refer to them regularly.

2. Communication. This is actually the most important out of all the points. It can fix everything, even if everything has gone wrong. But it can’t be left until it’s too late. So stick to a regular and consistent communication strategy. Even if you haven’t been able to deliver, at least inform the person who has paid you that you haven’t been able to deliver, and explain what you are going to do next.

3. Attention to detail. This is what separates the truly exceptional from the simply good. Many companies, or people, can achieve a result. But there are those who make you feel special along the way. Who make everyone feel special along the way. If you get a great outcome, but your clients have hated working with you for a year, then is that really a great outcome? It’s the details that matter..

4. Excuses. No excuses. Ever.

5. Apologies. Always be aware when you have upset people, and always apologise – honestly, promptly, and personally. Something so tiny as not apologising can lead to the complete collapse of a relationship. Just saying sorry can save it.

6. Price. Don’t take on customers that you won’t care about because they don’t pay you enough. Just say no. Because if you take them on, then they’ll expect the same service as others who are paying you ten times more. And if you don’t provide it, then they will be deeply disappointed and your reputation will be tarnished. And under no circumstances ever mention other clients or make it seem that anyone else is more important than the person you are talking to.

And these takeaways apply from the other side as well. As we go through life, we will choose to spend money on services, or products which come with services attached. From the most basic, like choosing an electrician, to the most important, like choosing an investment bank to sell your company – somewhere in this range will fall decisions that we will definitely have to make. And these two experiences have certainly taught me a lot about what to do next time.

Six core takeaways to ensure that people who do work for you don’t screw things up:

1. Expectations. Set them yourself, based on what you think is feasible. Don’t let the supplier set them – they will overpromise, and that way no one wins. And make clear, very clear, and in writing, that what they pitch is going to be recorded as a promise, and that you will be holding them to it. Set your own expectations for them – explain what you are like, explain how much you expect. Push them away from it – tell them that they will see you as difficult, that you will constantly pressure them, and will not allow them to just coast through.

2. Communication. Set out the communication strategy yourself from the very beginning – tell them what you expect, tell them that you will not tolerate any deviation from this, and set a rampup in communication if the project has a defined end with an important goal.

3. Attention to detail. Similarly to the above, explain the importance of detail to you. Explain that you are not an average person, that good enough will not cut it in this case, and give them the opportunity not to take the work.

4. Excuses. Nip them in the bud. Successful people don’t make excuses. They say sorry and then fix things. It’s a total waste of time to explain why things went wrong – that time should be spent on learning from the mistakes and setting out processes to make sure that things don’t go wrong that way again.

5. Apologies. If people don’t know when and how to apologise, just don’t work with them. Life is too short to work with people who have no emotional intelligence, who cannot notice, relate to and fix pain that they cause to others, however slight.

6. Price. This is one I’ve learned even more times. Never bargain down people who are good at their job. It is a false economy. I’ve always related this to a car analogy. I’d rather drive a BMW M3 than a Porsche Carerra. Why? Because although they are the same price, it’s top of the range, rather than bottom of the range. No one is going to pull up in a nicer one and take the attention away. Sure, someone’s going to pull up in a Veyron, but that’s just life.. However in your selected category, you’re at the top. So if you can’t afford to be one of the supplier’s best customers, then just don’t do it. Find a scrappy supplier who is in your price range, who is on the way to being that best-in-class company, and who will treat you like their best customer because you actually will be.

So that’s a lot of learnings. I’m actually itching to get another supplier now and put them all into practice, because I’m definitely not making these mistakes again. I’m excited to keep working with the first company, and glad that the project with the second ended well. And most of all, I am grateful to both of them for demonstrating how people who are great at what they do can genuinely, overwhelmingly, screw things up while still delivering a great outcome – that’s a learning that I have internalised, and that I and the Ometrians will benefit from for many years to come.


Find out more on the about Ivan Mazour page.
And watch Ivan Mazour's TEDx Talk - "Why we shouldn't be scared of sharing our personal data".

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dudley October 19, 2014 - 10:35 am

Hello Ivan, firstly thankyou for your insights. I felt compelled to respond to you as the 6 takeaways you mentioned are identical to 6 of key Values in my mission statement that I give my staff when they join my company. Given that I have a communicatuons and influencer Agency – unrelated to tech – i think this is quite astounding. I guess in the end service indus tries are service industries and clients all expect the same thing. Dudley

Ivan Mazour October 19, 2014 - 10:50 am

Hi Dudley,

As founders, it’s entirely our responsibility to ensure that the rest of the team can live up to the expectations that we set. It’s great to see that these lessons, which I’ve only truly understood from these recent experiences of mine, match what you’re already aware of and are imparting on your new team-members as they join. Do you have any other key values in your mission statement?


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