1000 Donuts

originalOne of the best sales engagements I ever experienced was also one of the worst.

Every morning before work I visit a convenience store in the shopping center not far from my house to pick up a cup of coffee. Through fifteen years of visits this location, part of a large national convenience store chain, has always been a consistent, proficient, friendly place. And I love the coffee.

One morning a few years ago, shortly before Christmas, I was surprised by an unusual intensity of excitement among the regular Monday morning store staff. They roamed the aisles like eager press-gangs in search of new conscripts and before long one of the clerks had me cornered.

“We’re going for the record on Friday. Can you come in and buy a donut to help us?”

The record, as it was related to me by the eager young man, appeared to be some global achievement for one day single store donut sales. I was intrigued.

He went on to explain, “Apparently some mosque in Virginia did, like, 875 donuts in a single day, so corporate said we’re going to try and break the record.”

Now I was becoming a little skeptical. I doubted very much that the worldwide single day donut record was held by a mosque, however motivating that might be to American jingoists fearful of a confectionary jihad. If there were really such a record I think it more likely that it was set one Sunday morning by some lucky donut store next to a Baptist megachurch in Alabama. I was pretty sure my young salesman had either seriously misheard or was simply making stuff up.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday and Wednesday the store hubbub amplified.

“Don’t forget Friday; we’re going for the record; we need everyone to come in for donuts.”

Store staff hummed from one customer to another like bees pollinating new blossoms. Their mission was all encompassing and, I have to admit, it was becoming exciting. Despite the fact that I was very blurry on exactly what we were striving for, I found myself becoming emotionally committed to helping them make their goal. As I looked around I could tell my fellow regular customers were feeling the same way.

That night I told my wife that I needed her to drive to the convenience store on Friday and buy a donut.

By Thursday store activity was at a fever pitch but there was also some challenging new information.

“Corporate told us that they were wrong and the record was 1000 donuts not 875,” another clerk related, “so we’ve got to do 1000. Don’t forget to come in tomorrow. We’re going to need everyone to buy donuts.”

By this time I had no idea whether the contest goal had actually changed overnight, or whether the original challenge had simply gotten mangled as it worked its way down the increasingly passionate chain of employees on the shop floor.

No matter. We had to break the record.

Friday morning came and the store was packed. Boxes of donuts were stacked against the walls and regular customers who might normally purchase a single donut were buying dozens for all their co-workers. There were lines ten deep at each cash register and customers who might only come by once or twice a week made a special effort to show up that morning. We were all on the mission to buy 1000 donuts even though none of us knew exactly why.

In retrospect, of course, this was a terrible sales effort. These were not the best donuts in the country; heck, they were not even the best donuts in our neighborhood, nor were they the cheapest. The sales story surrounding the alleged “world record” was so riddled with misinformation it bordered on offensive. But here I was driving to work with not one but two blueberry cake donuts. Why?

For one thing, donuts are not complex and can be purchased with a small discretionary spend making them perfect for a spontaneous response to an emotional appeal; it was easy for me and the other regulars to participate. But with my two little carbohydrate mementos nestled on the seat beside me, I had to wonder if there was not something more to it.

Three possibilities came to mind:

Enthusiasm is contagious. It is no substitute for a good product or service, but genuine sales passion gives that good service special timbre in the ears of the customer.

History means something. I wanted my convenience store to succeed in large part because of their long history of treating me well as a customer. They earned it.

Everyone likes a mission. I like being involved in something bigger than myself and the store gave me a mission. It is no wonder that “movement marketing” is becoming so widespread; it taps a strong need within us to join a community in a greater endeavor.

In the end, as it turned out, there was no donut world record. The corporate challenge had, all along, been simply to exceed that chain’s single store record within the Dallas/Fort Worth region. That message had gotten bungled up in all the local fervor to over-achieve.

But I didn’t mind at all. Once again, life had offered up some wonderful lessons which I only hope I remember. Of course, how could I forget; each day when I step up to pay for my coffee I can look up at a bronze plaque on the wall behind the cashier which reads:

12/17/2010

MOST SINGLE DAY DONUT SALES IN DFW:  1,475 sold

We did it.

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Failure is Overrated

painting-phaethonSince there are not many sports that reward kids who are weak, slow and inattentive, I learned at an early age that my athletic aspirations had no future. That’s fine; it hurt but I accepted that and moved on to more rewarding activities.

It is probably just as well that as a school boy I did not have access to the innumerable failure- embracing books and magazine articles floating about today with titles like “What If The Secret To Success Is Failure?”, “Why Failure Is Good For Success”, “Celebrating Failure”, “Failing Forward” and so on. I am not sure what misapprehensions I might have drawn.

Individually, most of these articles are well-intentioned and helpful, suggesting that failure builds character and insight. Specifically in the entrepreneurial context failure is heralded as an inevitable marker of risk takers, which it certainly is. Of course, if that is the case then what we are really celebrating is risk-taking, not failure. Who wouldn’t prefer an employee who never failed as long as they continued to take risks? By comparison someone who always fails and still takes risks is commonly called foolhardy and shown the door.

But when taken all together, what is a little dangerous in this enthusiasm for screwing up is that these popular articles may cause us to misunderstand the distinction between failure’s helpful lessons and failure itself. In so doing we risk undermining the very consequences of underperformance so necessary for us to learn from it. The common complaint one hears from line managers in large organizations is that there is “no accountability” which is code for no one senior in the company routinely suffers adverse circumstances from lack of execution or poor decision-making. Like the no-score movement in youth sports, no one “loses”. An institutional indifference to personal execution is bad enough, but now add to it a misguided admiration for failure and we begin to create a perverse incentive.

A “perverse incentive” is an instance where you are actually rewarded for doing poorly. There are occasions where this serves a purpose. For example the NFL draft process is a perverse incentive. The teams with the worst records are rewarded with the opportunity to draft the best new players. It makes sense because the league requires long term competitive parity in order to remain attractive to its customers. But for most of us perverse incentives are just that, perverse, and we have to remind ourselves of that as we begin extolling grand failures.

Failing is simply not good, but if you do fail, then learn its lessons well. But the truly important lessons from failing require the experience of its negative consequences. The good part of failure is surviving it. Rob failure of its consequences, its sting, and you rob it of its ability to teach. If we discount the consequences of failure, we remove the necessity of wisdom in making good decisions. The Greek mythic character, Phaethon, boldly took the reins of the sun-chariot and drove it across the sky. But when he lost control Zeus obliterated him rather than allow the earth to be burned up by the unrestrained chariot of fire. Take away Zeus’ thunderbolt and we draw a distorted lesson from the story of Phaethon.

But when we talk of failure imprecisely we often diminish the thunderbolt. I suspect that we do so simply because, as experienced managers, colleagues, parents, friends, we recognize around us the oft-divorced connection between work and consequences. How often have we seen excellent efforts come to naught due to uncontrollable quirks of life or outside circumstances. How can we not recognize and applaud the struggle even if the outcome disappoints? So we diminish the taint of failure to accommodate the vagaries of modern cause and effect.

Can I suggest another solution?

Several years ago I was at a company event when I saw one particular manager who had spent months engaged in a complex and difficult pursuit with one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. We were supposed to hear the coming week whether our company was the successful bidder for this large book of new business. I nodded and greeted him as I walked past but then, I turned back and walked up to him.

“I think it is important for you to know that I believe you have done a fantastic job running this pursuit. I desperately hope we win, but I want you to know that whatever happens this week, I am proud to be associated with the kind of project you managed on our behalf.”

Rather than awkwardly accommodating unsuccessful results after the fact, congratulate your colleague on his noteworthy effort before the outcome is known. That way you avoid gratuitous consolation, you recognize the chasm between cause and effect, but you do not diminish the obvious and important consequences of failure. Rather you genuinely align yourself with your colleague and with those consequences, be what they may.

 

Application 1: Search for someone you know…an employee doing great work on a difficult project, a child finishing a hard school assignment or a friend or family member preparing for a physical or mental challenge. If their performance is outstanding, let them know before the outcome is clear, that you admire and appreciate the quality of their effort. Then allow the consequences themselves to teach the hard or easy lessons.

Application 2: Memorize a little Shakespeare:

Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon, wanting in the manage of unruly jades.”

This is King Richard II’s sorrowful exclamation as he faces usurpation and death. After a major putz-up, remembering it has helped me to place my own situation squarely in the great historical continuum of failures. Or, shock your colleagues and recite it aloud in your best Derek Jacobi voice to begin the meeting in which you have to explain a major screw-up. I haven’t tried that yet!