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Turning a broken promise into a “teachable moment”

Your brand is your promise. It’s a promise to your employees and it’s a promise to your clients.

For a lot of companies it’s also a nice wall decoration with a carefully constructed mission statement that nobody pays attention to.

That’s not how we work. When we make a promise, it’s important for us to follow through. And if we don’t then it’s up to us to come clean and make it right without throwing anybody under the bus or making excuses.

In short, when we screw up, it’s a failure we all have to wear.  It’s also a starting point for building on improvements to what we do.

We recently adopted a corporate Brand promise that states  that we are committed to “building lasting relationships while delivering effective, on-time results.

This last part is important because we work in an industry where timing is crucial. And delays are more that just irritants, they can cost our clients real money.

We keep metrics on this promise and in the past 12 months we completed over 1600 projects, 77% were delivered on time and 90% within 2 days of the planned delivery date.  It’s not perfect and we are committed to the process of continuous improvement.

So it was humbling to admit to one of our clients recently that we had failed to keep our promise. We’d made the age-old mistake of over-promising and under-delivering.

We didn’t take into account all the contingencies and set aside the necessary resources to complete a project on time.

Here is an excerpt from the letter we sent to our client:

Our errors in judgement about the time required to do this job meant that we ran out of time.  Our internal communications did not properly share the information among the team working on the job that we had promised to deliver a fully completed job. We did not even do a good job of relaying to our staff that this was the first job for a new client for whom we had spent a lot of time bringing on board.

So why am I choosing to broadcast this embarrassing screw-up to the world when nobody, other than the client, ever had to know? Because we want to be better. We want to be held to account.

The situation resulted in a lot of thought internally about what went wrong and how we can keep it from happening again.

Here’s what we determined:

  • Too often we think that a “narrow miss” is good enough (in this case over 97% of the project delivered on-time). No longer, we won’t accept a nearly completed promise.
  • Often our production team will know that delivery of a promise is in jeopardy but do not alert the customer facing staff, so they can notify a client in a timely fashion.  We should have been more proactive.
  • Our production team should have sounded the alert as the project fell behind and put into action steps to deliver on the drop date.  We took none of these steps but we certainly are more aware of our options now and our staff are empowered and motivated to take these steps with the goal of delivering on-time.
  • Despite having 10 minute morning huddles with our production team, we’ve not been in the habit of sharing customer specific details about projects. This is a failure.  If we had done so in this case, our team would have been more proactive and delivered on the promise.
  • We don’t like delivering bad news.  It’s uncomfortable.  We’d rather hope that things turn out alright then say “we are doing our best to get this completed on time but we cannot promise that it will be 100% done.”  We will try to be more accurate and give honest appraisals of the status of projects – even if it is not going to be a popular message. Our clients deserve the full, complete and accurate story from us so we can deliver as promised.

With the ink only just dry on our new Corporate Promise statement, this situation was a humbling experience for the whole company. But it has made our resolve to meet and exceed our brand promise even more fanatical going forward. The goal is 100%, all of the time. And anything less on our part is a failure.

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