About 9 years ago, I took a job as as sales rep for a large, profitable company. I sold printing. It was OK. I made good money and had a couple of nice co-workers. It was a great relief not to be broke every month. The job allowed me to buy a small house, and a used car that didn’t break down all the time. I could even afford a few new clothes, which I desperately needed for this job.
Three years into the job, I got married. I took vacation time for about 10 days to get married and go on my honeymoon. When I returned from my honeymoon, my closest co-worker, Melissa, had left me a message on my home answering machine, saying, “call me before you go back to work.” She sounded teary.
I called her right away. While I was away, she had been laid off, along with our manager and several other members of our team. The remaining members of our team , including myself, had been absorbed into several other teams. I was going to have to face the job without her, which suddenly seemed like a lot less fun. We cried together on the phone. (Just a note: Melissa now has a job she LOVES. And we are still good friends.)
I returned to work that Monday, a newlywed with an overhauled job. I was the only salesperson left at my location, and Sales was separated from the rest of the 170 people who worked there, so I just worked by myself all day. Another sales manager “inherited” me. I’d never met her. I was in the midwest and she was on the west coast, so (like before) I had a job with no manager anywhere near. I was assigned a sales territory that was completely new to me. Everything was different, but I wasn’t miserable. Change is part of life.
A few weeks into this new situation, we had a sales meeting in Minneapolis, so I attended. About 50 sales reps from all over the country attended. Most of these people were fine human beings, and many were seasoned company veterans. I looked at the meeting as an opportunity to meet my new boss and to network with my new teammates.
Meanwhile, I was finishing up several projects from my old territory, as I was required to do. Unfortunately, one particular project for a customer in Texas had gone haywire. Our contract writer had misconstrued something that the client wanted, thus writing incorrect instructions into the contract, yet the client had signed off on the contract months before, so the contracted work was performed and delivered to the client. At that point, the client went back to the contract, read it, and said, “that’s not what we really wanted!”
Let’s point some fingers. Whose fault was this?
It was apparently not the fault of the client, who had unwittingly signed off on a legally binding contract without knowing what was in it.
It was not the fault of my contract writer, who had formulated the technical language of the contract, written up the contract, signed the other line on the contract.
Thus, it had to be my fault, the sales rep’s fault. Uh-huh.
I decided, fine. I’ll take the blame because this gives me the opportunity to be a hero and make it right.
The client first blamed my contract writer. But my contract writer had no people skills and did not care (“we did what they hired us to do!”), so next, the client blamed me.
Since I was the sales rep and wanted this client’s business in the future—not to mention, a happy client now—I called my new manager (remember, I’ve never even met her) to tell her I had a hot customer on my hands and we needed to do something to appease her if we wanted to keep her business. (I wasn’t authorized to make any discounts, changes in the contract, etc.)
My manager demurred over the phone. She told me we’d talk about it in person when we saw each other. I felt put off, and I had this angry customer calling me all the time, but what could I do when I needed managerial involvement?
Fast forward to the next week. I met my manager in person at the sales meeting. She was frazzled and panicked about something else, but I had to deal with these angry phone calls, which were getting angrier because I wasn’t doing anything to resolve the situation. (Let me be clear: this situation absolutely required manager involvement.)
Now that I had face-to-face access to her for a few days, my manager seemed to have no interest in talking to me, and we had other meetings planned for days on end, so I caught her between meetings and made my case for doing something to “make it right” with this client. She suggested I call someone else and let them figure it out. In short, she acted like she wasn’t really my manager. I got the feeling she was angry at inheriting another employee (me) to manage. I moved on and tried to resolve the situation by making some more phone calls.
Later that same day, I was standing in a conference room between meetings, having a cup of coffee with a group of co-workers. My manager’s manager, the VP of Sales, the most powerful woman in the company, stomped up to me with her manicured nails and her $2,500 suit and huffed at me, “You have a customer with a problem.”
Needless to say, I knew exactly what she was talking about because I had been trying to resolve the problem for a couple of weeks. I responded, “yes, I do. I really need help.” I was about to fill her in on the situation when she stepped closer to me and said, loudly and emphatically:
“I should never hear about your problems. You need to work with your manager to get these things resolved.”
With that, she turned on her heel and walked away from me and my surprised co-workers.
So there it was. My manager wouldn’t help me and the VP of Sales had just humiliated me in front of co-workers whom I was hoping to impress.
It’s 6 years later, so I’ll admit it: I went to the restroom and got teary in a stall. I wasn’t hurt as much as angry. The VP apparently thought I had no idea that I had a hot customer, then told me to talk to my manager, an avenue I’d been pursuing unsuccessfully for a couple of weeks! Being admonished in front of my peers (especially for something that was not my fault, but for which I was taking all the blame—and which I was trying to fix, but couldn’t) was also infuriating and humbling. It was a frustrating few moments for me. Thank goodness for private bathroom stalls. I fumed for a few moments, then gathered myself and returned to the meetings.
That afternoon, I respectfully approached the VP and before she could stop me, I quietly and quickly explained that I had been working on the problem and I had, indeed, engaged my manager in the situation, and was continuing to try to get it resolved. Then I stopped.
She seemed surprised. She looked at me, smiled vaguely, and said, “OK, good.”
That was the end of the conversation, and the last time we ever spoke of it.
To make a long story short:
- I never did make that customer happy, and my manager never did help me. The customer walked away and never came back. I couldn’t blame her. Mistakes and misunderstandings are bound to occur sometimes in business; not making things right is unacceptable.
- My co-worker who wrote the erroneous contract was fired about a year later for incompetence.
- My manager was later fired because she couldn’t get along with the VP of Sales.
- The VP of Sales was laid off earlier this year.
- After our second conversation that day, the VP’s attitude toward me was always one of respect and interest.
- The VP is currently an employment reference for me in my job hunt, and I trust her to speak highly of me if she ever gets a phone call from a potential employer.
- The apathetic manager is still a sales manager at a different company.
- In the workplace, stand up for yourself when you have been wronged, but be professional and rational about it.
- If you can bear it, give someone who wronged you a second chance.
- Most bad managers eventually leave or get fired. Ride it out if you can.
- Sometimes, the person you dread the most turns out to be your ally, if you a) play your cards right, and b) are lucky.
- Always know where the nearest restroom is.
- Oh, one other thing. When you think you are being constantly monitored by everyone around you, like starring in your own “Truman Show” . . . . . . . just relax. You probably aren’t.