Friday, March 20, 2009

Oops ...

In the 1970's, I worked at a small company whose four owners swore. One of them was a Cuban who simply substituted f**k or s**t for any English word that escaped his momentary grasp. The others reached for the old Anglo-Saxon when anything went wrong. I got used to it, maybe much too used to it.

In 1978, I went to work for Exxon, and after a while they folded me into their new “office products” company, called Exxon Office Systems (“EOS”). Exxon was a polite company. I quickly learned to take all my swearing off the table.

After this EOS company was created, I often went to liaison meetings at its other division, especially the typewriter/manufacturing division south of Philadelphia. At the time, this group's hot product was an Inkjet printer. Exxon owned some promising Inkjet technology, and it made sense to get this invention into a printer. This would be one of the first Inkjet printers. It was full of other inventions as well, and it was really tough getting it to market. The schedule slipped and slipped.

These schedule slips were agonizingly poignant. Everyone knew that HP would soon bring its first Laserjet printer into the world. The Laserjet was (correctly) expected to sell for slightly more than Exxon's Inkjet. We knew that the HP would also be more reliable, cheaper to maintain, and produce better copy. Exxon's goal was to get its Inkjet printer out there first, to sell enough to recover its development costs. Our Inkjet sales would fall off a cliff when the HP came out. (I know that that's a lousy marketing goal, don't get me started.)

The product manager – I'll call him Carl X – had to deal with a lot of complaints about slippage that he could not control. And he had a sore point: EOS marketing kept predicting how many printers he could sell, but Carl knew their figures were phony, because the marketers were fearless about predicting what they could sell before the printer would be available.

So there I was, with forty managers, at a regular printer monthly status meeting. After Carl explained the most recent reasons for delay, the VP of sales told us all that he had just returned from a big computer conference. He said his sales people had told him they could have sold a couple hundred Inkjets if they had already been available.

Carl responded in fury, a loud shout, asking, “And how many units will they sell if I give it to them next month?”

Only that's not exactly what he said. His actual question was full of more explicit expletives than I heard in the rest of my six years at Exxon. His question hung in the air, in palpably shocked silence. And into that silence, I uttered the only sentence that I ever spoke at a printer status meeting. My comment went to the heart of what everyone was thinking: that even a month could make such a difference, for greater sales, or perhaps as the beginning of disaster. I think it was pretty good, because it got a laugh. Here's what I said:

It's all right Carl. You missed the window.”

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