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The biggest cock up I ever made in business – Be warned!

I still shudder when I think about how incredibly stupid I was when I made the biggest stuff up of my career. And then, 18 years later, I did it again! Whatever you do- do not make this mistake with your clients. Ever!

Bruce Matchett at Saatchi in Singapore always tells me if he thinks a Possums post is weak: “You’re running out of material,” he cautions. As I reviewed the list of ideas I have in train for the next few posts, this one popped out as a ‘must do it NOW’, even though it’s simple, many of you will go ‘Ho Hum’, and an email from Bruce is no doubt moments away.  I write it in the hope that it helps some of you avoid making this stuff up as you race into 2012. Here’s the story.

It was 1992. Grant was the most relentless and eager client I ever worked with. He was the marketing manager for a Unilever margarine, Becel. He lived and breathed the product. And as a good client guy and agency man, so did I.

Then I invited Grant and his wife to my home for dinner. Grant and his wife arrived. Hugs all round. And the first thing Grant then did? He walked straight over to my fridge. Opened the door. Excitedly looked inside. And then… his face drained of colour. He literally withdrew in horror. In my fridge- a brand new tub of –no- not Becel, but its mortal enemy…Meadow Lea!

He was heart-broken.  Devastated.  And so was I. I had blown it. I was not using his product.

ALWAYS use your client’s product if humanly possible- certainly in front of them.

Yes- I know you know that. But do you do it? Always? Truthfully?

David Ogilvy said it was simply good manners to use a client’s products. And he’s right.

I promised myself that day that I would never make that mistake again. Roll the clock forward to 2010. I was having a great ‘get to know you’ lunch with our PR agency’s  largest client- the local PR head of a major software company, with her new Singapore based boss. I was on form. Charming. Amusing. Insightful. “You’ve still got it, Chris,” I told myself smugly, having been a bit worried that I was going soft in my corporate head office role, and was  not as ‘client fit’ as I used to be . Then, for my final flourish, I asked if I could order them a cab. I took out my mobile phone. They looked at me in horror- all warmth and goodwill evaporating. Dead silence. The air was still.

“What’s up?” I asked, bewildered.

“Your mobile device does not run our software,” they replied. “It only uses a competitive product.”

I was horrified.  I had no idea. But I should have done. And I should have been using a device that used their product. They were genuinely upset. I knew I had let them, and my team, down.

Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. (Now- I might have got some of the details wrong of that anecdote, but you get the point).

In both cases my clients were generous enough to forgive my blunders. But the message is clear.

USE YOUR CLIENT’S PRODUCTS. It’s simply good manners to do so. And you break their hearts if you don’t (and seriously undermine the relationship.)

PS. I am SO GLAD we’re working with Moët et Chandon by the way….

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21 Responses to The biggest cock up I ever made in business – Be warned!

  1. Gowan Clews January 25, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    You’ll like this anecdote by Donald Keough, then CEO of Coca Cola and taken from his great book, “The Ten Commandments of Business Failure”.

    http://thinkinglikeacustomer.com/customer-centricity/customer-details/

  2. Katie Gold January 25, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Hi Chris
    Cool blog about the Becel. How excruciating. i have your story in reverse.

    Yesterday I gave my ute to the guy i buy coffee off every day.

    He was moving house. Dont ask why i have a ute.

    I was handing the ute over to him and showed him all the ropes in the tool box.

    to his delight he saw 10 used coffee cups with his ‘Marius’ logo on them.

    he was thrilled. he chuffed and laughed and swooned and had to take a photo. “you see katie i want everyone’s car in the village to look like this”, in his heavy polish accent. “this is just beautiful to my eyes.”

    your stories and lessons are top shelf Chris, i can hear your voice and your irrepressible energy. keep it up !

    • Chris Savage January 25, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      Thanks Katie. That’s a great story!! hope you are well. Chris

  3. MC Hammer January 25, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I didn’t realise madam lash was such a long standing client.

    • Chris Savage January 25, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      Good to see you are out in parole, MC

  4. Nick Souter January 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    A good rule but there can be exceptions. I was ECD on Marlboro in Tokyo while I was desperately trying to give up smoking. However, I was lucky in that the CEO of Philip Morris, Jim Scully, was also trying to quit. And so we had a gentleman’s agreement that neither of us wanted to use his bloody product! Nonetheless, it was easier to give it up once I was off the business. Much harder for him, poor guy.

    • Chris Savage January 25, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      Thanks Nick. Good story!

  5. John January 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Another great anecdote Chris, and a great reminder – thanks. I can picture you in both situations… and the look on your face! 🙂
    And a very enjoyable “good news” story from Katie Gold.

    • Chris Savage January 25, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      Thanks Gardy. Big hug. Chris

  6. Kronick January 26, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    Great post Chris. Remind me to tell you my own story some day of the introduction of my wife to my favorite client :-). Hope you are well.

    • Chris Savage January 27, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks Scott. Good to hear from you. Tell the story!! Chris

  7. Jenny January 27, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Chris – I hope you are still using Caltex petrol though 😉 Serioulsy though great tip. I’ve just moved house and used the crates that a potential new client provides for office moves to test if they will work for house moves. I think that really helped convince the client that we were the right people for his requirements especially as he’d not encountered PR’s before. It was also fortunate that I was moving house. Hopefully we’ll start working an that account any day now.

    • Chris Savage January 27, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks Jenny! I remember the Caltex days well! Hope you are well! Chris

  8. Lawrence February 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Not sure I agree on this one.

    In this day and age, aren’t we all – clients and suppliers – trying to be more honest / genuine / open minded?

    And to go that extra step to always use a client’s product seems a bit artificial.

    Did you end up changing phones following the meeting with the software company?

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Good to see other points of view. Maybe the way to get the answer is to ask your clients what they think. I know every one of mine would look at me blankly: “HUH? How can you even question it?” Try paying for a meal using a Mastercard when you’re dining your Amex client. Or having a Virgin boarding pass when you visit your Qantas client. Or staying at The Hilton when you visit your Four Seasons client. In my view, wherever reasonable, use your client’s products. If I were a client, I would for sure expect that from my suppliers.Chris

      • Lawrence February 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

        I guess you operate at a level where you have to go through the trouble of changing your credit card so that you have the opportunity to live and breathe your client’s product.

        I’m wondering if creative types would swap their iPhones for an Win 7 Phone if the agency won a Microsoft job.

  9. Grahame Healey February 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Of course you have to use and know your Clients products inside out, but your guys seem particularly anal with misplaced corporate zeal.

    First off keep your bloody nose out of my fridge and second you must have had the wit to exclaim it was a competitive product test.

    In my experience its the Client who wears dirty underwear too, but he’s the Client and mind your own business. Do what I say not what I do.

    • Chris Savage February 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Fair enough!

  10. David Angell February 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    Just got to this post late, interesting to see the differing opinions on this one. Most of the clients I’ve had over the past 13 years or so probably wouldn’t have been quite that zealous to my face in the event of a cock-up – but just letting them know that you’re a loyalist sure can be an ice-breaker. Relatively early in my career I had a retail client who was extremely hard to crack. I was in one of her stores one weekend and I decided to text her (or ‘SMS’ her, as it was in those days) on impulse, letting her know that I had just bought a TV and got a great deal. Well – Monday morning, she was a different person, and even mentioned the incident at our review six months later. Sometimes it’s the easy things!

    • Chris Savage February 3, 2012 at 10:20 am #

      Great story David. Thanks a lot for sharing it. Chris

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