In business, we celebrate competence and success. We love the self-made and we nod our heads when some beautiful, successful person looks into the camera and says, “I have no regrets.” First, that’s a lie, and second, it’s maybe as dangerous and foolish of a line as has ever been uttered. It’s the screw-ups, authored by ourselves and others, that we should embrace with two simple rules: 1. People don’t mean to screw-up, so they need grace, AND, 2. In business, you earn grace by how you handle the screw-up. Here are two solid screw-up stories – one handled well, and the other….not so much.
The poorly-handled story was of my own making, and it has shaped my career to this day. In 1994 I was a 24 year old booking agent in the music business in Nashville working my tail off, making $12K a year and sleeping on the floor of a rented house occupied by a rock band. There were no mass-use cell phones, no internet and we were ditching our rolodexes while trying to figure out how to use Goldmine on our giant PCs. I sent a very young but soon to be popular band to a show in Greenville, VA. The problem was that the show was in Greenville, SC. The band drove to the wrong town, missed the show, didn’t get paid, infuriated their fans and incurred gas, food and hotel charges for nothing. I didn’t find out until I walked into a slew of angry voicemails on my office landline on Monday morning. Being young, dumb and terrified, I didn’t own what was absolutely my error. I apologized, but hedged. I didn’t lie, but I didn’t tell the truth. That’s code for lying. I continued to book dates for the band as one of the young guys at the agency, but I know that they never really trusted me again.
The bad story = good outcome happened to me very recently. I had a huge tree in my front yard which covered most of my house, it provided privacy and a ton of shade on hot summer days. I loved that tree…….until it disappeared. My daughter got home from school and texted me a picture of a big stump and asked where our tree was. Shocked, I immediately jumped on the neighborhood Facebook page in an attempt to track down my tree as if it were a lost dog. Apparently, it took four guys 2-3 hours to cut it down so several people saw the work in progress and identified the culprit as my very own tree service – one that I had used for years. I called the owner immediately and left him a voicemail. He called me back 30 minutes later and he was humiliated. He explained that he took the order to cut down the tree and for some reason he associated it with my wife, who usually arranges that stuff. It just stuck in his mind that way and he went to our house and hacked down my beloved tree. He told me that in 10 years, he’d never made a mistake like that. He didn’t blame an employee. He didn’t wiggle. Then he had a new, much better, as-large-as-could-be-tree planted in that same spot, which cost him well over $2,000. And he did it all pronto. It will take 4-5 years for that new tree to approach the size of my other one, but this guy went to such lengths to make it right that not only will I continue to use him, I wrote a glowing post on the neighborhood Facebook page about his spectacular customer service. He turned a huge mistake for my family into something that, frankly, impressed me and probably earned him more business.
We are just humans. If we’re honest, we make mistakes all the time. I have a day every week where I feel like I should brush the loser dust off of me when I walk outside my office to drive home. Just like you, I’m trying! The first story I told, the one about the band – I’ve thought about it a thousand times. I promised myself that I would never hedge again. And you know what? I haven’t. It was a great lesson. I’ll bet it would have been much better for me if I would have responded like my tree guy. Let’s give each other grace. But when it’s on us, let’s respond in ways that make people want to give it.