The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the fact that we are well and truly in this together. As a community this is illustrated in how we need to dig deep, be good to our fellow humans and all look out for each other. There is no space in a pandemic for animosity over petty concerns or differences. This lesson, I hope, will stay with us long after the pandemic has passed and our lives return back to normal.
Let me tell you a little story, from long ago and not so far away, about the benefits that can come from putting animosity aside. I was a new salesman at an erosion control distributor – still finding my feet but getting there. In those early days, I made a point to attend every pre-bid meeting I possibly could. I was in customer offices, engineers’ offices, city offices and DOT offices. I was at jobsite after jobsite. And sometimes, I ran into the competition.
Now, historically, the company I worked for at the time had set any company sales reps that sold similar products as we did as persona non grata. Competitors in business were to be destroyed! But I also had a branch manager who I will say was just as happy to let me be as autonomous as I wanted, so I went a different direction. When I ran across competitors, I joked with the other sales reps instead of giving them side-eye. I sent some seed business to the specialty seed company who sold my biggest customer hydromulch. I couldn’t get the seed the customer needed so I sent it their way. Why not? Life is too short for animosity, and while I’d get temporarily mad if I lost a project to a competitor on a few cents difference in pricing, I’ll admit I won just as many that way too. I took the long view on it and found other ways around the problem of competition aside from one that resulted in a shallow grave – theirs or mine!
One day, I messed up an order, and I mean badly. I had shipped 800 tposts and silt fence on an order to the coast, and an hour after the truck had left our dock I realized my mistake. I’d sent the wrong tposts. To turn the truck around and reload it with the correct product would take a total of four hours off of his time. He wouldn’t make it with enough drive time to get back, and he'd miss his delivery window. My options, as I saw it, were to either crawl under my desk and stay there or to pick up the phone and ask for help. I chose option three: I made a call for help from under my desk. And that call wasn’t to turn the driver around or to tell my customer I’d cost him a day's worth of work. I called my biggest competitor in business who just so happened to be based right near where my driver was, and I asked for a favor.
I told them what happened and asked if I could send my driver over to pick up the right kind of tposts so he could make his scheduled drop. And here’s the kicker – I asked if I could just take them and replace them from our own stock the next day. No invoicing. No profit to be made. No guarantee I wouldn’t take their $1,500 in t-posts and run for it. What do you think they said? They said yes. I told them they were my heroes (they were), and I got my driver over there and loaded with minimal delay from the original schedule. My driver made the drop to a happy customer who was none the wiser for the disaster that had been narrowly averted. I put the largest bows I could find on the four bundles of t-posts we sent down the next day to replace their stock. Over the next few years, we sold them silt fence when they ran out, and they did the same to us.
That seed company I mentioned earlier who sold hydromulch to our biggest customer? I sold them a semi-load of silt fence once when they were in a bind. And they bought $9,000 worth of specialty seed I’d brought in and had the contractor cancel the order on me, vastly reducing what we would have lost on that deal.
You don’t have to be best friends, but keeping anger out of the equation when dealing with the competition will do wonders, I promise. (Aside from the obvious benefit of minimizing your aneurysm risk.) What’s the saying? Where there’s water there’s pirates? Competitors are everywhere. But there also is the pirate code to remember, even if it is more of a guideline than any set of rules to follow. So I say to ye, as I pass down some learning here – the code is as follows: “Just be cool and don’t be a jerk/ too big of a jerk.” You’d be surprised how far that can take you in this world.
Lauren Alaniz is director of sales for ECBVerdyol.