Avoiding cross-examination

I did what every good agency executive is trained to do: I went into the meeting and basically tried to wing it.

At dinner recently, my wife declared it was time to repair and paint our backyard fence. 

It seemed like a good idea to me, but there was a catch: I did not want to use our good friend the contractor who we worked with last time. I find him to be a bit of a scatterbrain and difficult to work with.  

After talking it through with my wife, I decided to use a different contractor, and not involve our friend. The tricky part is that he would probably find out that we hired someone else.

"Should I come clean and tell him before we hire the other contractor?" I asked. 

At this point, my 25-year-old son chimed in and said: "I know what my boss would say: ‘It is better to be direct examined than cross-examined.’"

My son then explained that if a problem arises at his office that affects a client, his boss believes it is best to call the client directly and disclose the issue. Otherwise, you run the risk that the client will find out through some other means, and you will then have to suffer a cross-examination about what went wrong.

It reminded me of a time I was working for a PR firm in Los Angeles. My client was a manufacturer of window coverings, and was seeking our help to make a splash at an upcoming big trade show. This was a tough assignment – how do you make window coverings sexy?

We held a brainstorming session to generate ideas. One of my colleagues was an old-time PR man and he lit up with excitement over the challenge.

"I did a trade show years ago," he said, "where we brought in an old-fashioned voting booth and had people vote on the best displays at the show. It was a huge hit."

I pitched the idea to my client and she loved it. She set a meeting for us to present the concept to her team, which we eagerly agreed to.

Unfortunately, I was also running three other, much larger accounts at that time, and I did not focus on the trade show until a few days before the meeting.

And there was a problem – I could not locate a voting booth. This was before the Internet, and while I tried working with local municipalities, I was getting nowhere with my search.

So I did what every good agency executive is trained to do: I went into the meeting and basically tried to wing it.

It went badly. Halfway through the presentation, the client began a tough cross-examination that quickly revealed we were not ready to move forward with the concept. We ended up losing the account.

The incident nagged me for years. When I reflect back, what bothered me wasn’t so much that she fired us, it’s what she said in a room full of executives. The client looked me right in the eye and said to me: "I have to say I’m very disappointed."

I should have called her in advance and admitted that we were not ready with the idea. She might have been angry, but there would have been time to postpone the meeting. 

And yes, we might still have lost the account, but at least I would not have embarrassed her in front of her colleagues. Instead, I betrayed her trust and let her down in a very public way.

Now, almost thirty years later, my son was reinforcing a lesson I had been taught when I was not much older than him. 

I thought about the advice from my son’s boss and about my own painful experience with conflict avoidance. Then I told my wife I would call our friend and let him know we would be using a different contractor.  

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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