McGee Partners
Management Consultants


Running a Business -
Listen and Learn


William M. McGee

July, 2011

If one wishes to improve the way a business is being managed, first it is necessary to listen to issues as they arise. Most business managers have heard that at one time or another, and most would agree with the point. Yet, how many of them actually follow the advice? One thing is for sure, if one doesn't listen, improvements rarely get made, and business managers go about their daily routines deluding themselves into believing they are doing as well as they can. An example of this is a company that we recently hired to re-seal our driveway. It didn't work out. We found another company to do the work. The first company called about a week after the work was done by the second company, not to apologize for any inconvenience, but to tell us that the issues they had with our work were unavoidable and not their fault, and that is the point of this brief article.


Here is a summary of the situation. The first company was supposed to show up and do the work starting early one morning. They didn't show up, so we put in calls to the company at mid-morning and at noon. We got only an answering machine, and no call back. Around mid-afternoon, we finally got a call back, and were told that a piece of equipment had broken, they would not be able to get to our driveway that day, the next day was out of the question, and we would have to reschedule to a day later in the week. Unfortunately, the only day they could do it conflicted with our schedule. So, they said they would have to get back to us.

We didn't hear from them the remainder of that day, or early the next day, so around mid-morning of the next day, we put in another call to attempt to reschedule. Again, we got only an answering machine, and no call back. We tried again around noon with the same result. Around mid-afternoon, we called again, and this time got a person who seemed annoyed that our schedule conflicted with the day they had available. The person had no additional information on when our work could be rescheduled, and stated again that they would have to get back to us. During the discussion, it became clear that there was a lack of coordination over the jobs being scheduled. Having lost confidence in the company, we told them to take us off their list. We then called the second company, and they were able to do the work on the day we preferred.

About a week after the work on our driveway was completed by the second company, the owner of the first company called to explain that the issues they had with our work were not their fault. He said that he had to make a last-minute trip to another state, a piece of their equipment had broken, and those were issues that were out of their control. Not once, did he try to understand the reasons why we decided to go with another company, or what his company could have done to avoid it. He was more interested in rationalizing his company's issues, so that he can continue conducting business as he always has, and feel good about it. Compared to a well-run business, his approach was naive, and just a little arrogant.

Lost Opportunity

Because he was not interested in listening to the reasons we decided to go with another company, the owner lost a valuable opportunity to improve the way that his business operates. If he was listening, he would have learned that our primary concern was with communications, not performance. We certainly understand that plans and schedules at times go awry. With timely and effective communications, he would have easily kept our business. So, for the owner of the first company in this example, and for other business managers who may have experienced similar situations, here are a few lessons that can be taken from our story:

  • Ensure timely and effective communications with customers. If you are in a business that sets specific appointments with customers, be available when you miss an appointment. The best policy, of course, is to call the customer when you know that you will have a problem keeping the appointment. However, an answering machine or answering service is fine, as long as there is a call back within a short period of time. If an appointment has been missed and a customer is calling, it can be assumed that the customer wants information. Make sure customers get information in a timely manner. In our example, we did not get a timely response from the company, and when we did make contact, we got no information. Operating in that way is not likely to inspire confidence in customers.

  • Never lose an opportunity to learn and improve. Feedback coming directly from a customer is invaluable. Why not listen to what the customer has to say? In our example, the owner was too busy telling us why their issues related to our work were totally unavoidable. In doing so, he failed to even hear the real issue. If he had, he could have easily made changes in his operations that would have avoided similar issues with future customers.

  • Always ask for the business. If the owner of the first company had approached his discussion with us in a better manner, and had asked for another chance when our driveway needs to be re-sealed again, we probably would have given it to him. The second company did good work, but not outstanding. The first company may have lost business in the short-term, but that should not be a reason to give up on business in the longer-term. Never give up.

Listening to customers with the proper mindset, can turn short-term issues into opportunities to improve the way businesses run. If one listens to customers, one will learn.

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