The Soy Sauce Incident
The guy in line ahead of me had the same idea as I did: lunch to go from Chin’s Teriyaki. He got to the counter, received his Styrofoam box, and reached over to grab two or three soy sauce packets.
“That will be 20 cent extra per pack,” the young Asian gal behind the counter said in broken English.
The guy, we’ll call him Vinny Veinbulge, looked to be a construction worker, probably not the most sophisticated fellow you ever met. At the thought of having to pay extra for a penny’s worth of soy sauce from a teriyaki joint, he looked up, astonished. A vein in his neck suddenly bulged noticeably. “Scuse me?” he said. “You mean I gotta pay extra fer soy sauce?”
“That right,” came the innocent reply. “Manager’s order.”
Now another vein, this one in his forehead, was pulsing largely. He replied, “Well, is any included with my meal, inside the box?”
The gal picked up on his growing anger and struggled to keep her composure. She replied nervously, “No, but we do include one tub teddiyaki sauce.” She then pulled a small plastic tub of brown fluid from inside his Styrofoam box. “And this one free.”
Now Vinny’s face was flushed red. “Lemme get this straight. I’m spendin’ six bucks on Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant, and you’re gonna charge me sixty cents extra for a nickel’s worth of soy sauce?”
The gal fretted noticeably, avoiding eye contact. “Sorry mister, that manager’s order. I no can change.”
“Well then, you can tell your manager to take his lousy food and his soy sauce and [blankity-blank-blank-blank].”
He then spun and stalked out empty handed, no fewer than 15 purple veins pulsing wildly across his face and neck.
The poor Asian gal was shook up, nearly in tears. I approached the counter and with a gentle smile said, “Is the to-go order for Garrison ready? By the way, I won’t be needing any extra soy sauce.”
She managed a grin, appreciative of my attempt at levity.
This little scenario illustrates several important business lessons:
- Penny-wise but pound-foolish. Everybody knows soy sauce packets cost money. But the cost doesn’t even register compared to the cost of losing business. Vinny won’t be back, and he’ll undoubtedly tell all his buddies about his experience. This is akin to a contractor being overly frugal with nails; or a consultant obsessing over paper and pencils. Certainly, those cheapskates among us are inclined to counter, “Waste Not, Want Not,” a valid point. However, there is a balance, and if you must err, err on the side of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff."
Put this concept to work for you. An architect I know has a reputation for unresponsiveness and mediocrity. Yet he is always slammed with business. Why? Mochas, that’s why. He generally brings or offers to buy coffee, lattes, mochas, donuts, lunches, etc. Plus he is a really nice man, very well-liked on a personal level. He understands that cheerfully spending a few pennies here and there reaps serious dollars down the road. Many times, the deciding factor of which contractor or consultant to hire comes down to who is the nicest.
- Give Employees a Little Autonomy. As soon as Vinny’s first vein bulged, the Asian gal should have backed down and showered him with as much soy sauce as he could stand (figuratively, of course). Instead, however, she dared not break her boss’ smallest rule. A construction industry parallel could be a framer who’s been instructed to install joist hangers a certain way, but comes upon a situation where he could save lots of time getting the job done differently, but doesn’t. This principle could apply to anything: placing rebar, shoveling ditches, filing daily reports, you name it. There are always 10 ways of doing something; employees should have enough freedom to choose the best way.
- Check In. I seriously doubt the owner of Chin’s will find out about the Vinny incident. Yet he was likely working the grill just one room away. I bet if he had witnessed the incident, being a smart businessman, he would have recognized the folly of his rule and changed it. Bosses should check in with employees regularly, and more importantly, encourage open, two-way communication. Frequently, it is the employee — the one in the direct line of fire — who first notices problems. She should not be afraid or intimidated to take them upstairs.
Tim Garrison of ConstructionCalc.com, is a professional engineer, author and software producer for the building industry. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim reads every one.
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