Are you tough enough to look at your failures?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 1993, 12:00am

AT A resort not long ago, I was asked at the end of my stay to fill out a questionnaire rating the facilities and service.

You know the form: ''How would you rate the restaurant . . . the food presentation . . . the service?'' ''How would you rate the service at the cocktail lounge?'' ''Was the swimming pool area well maintained?'' And so on.

As I filled in ratings of mostly ''Excellent'' with an occasional ''Very good'' it struck me the questionnaire gave a far more flattering opinion of the resort than I actually held.

The questionnaire was loaded. The proprietors were asking questions only about areas that mattered to them, so it made sense they elicited raves. The survey was an exercise in self-congratulation. I was more intrigued by what they did not ask me: Would I come back? Why not? Would I recommend the resort to my friends? Why not? Was it fairly priced? Did it live up to its reputation? What was the resort's reputation? The answers to those questions would have made a much livelier survey and also would have been far more useful to the resort's proprietors. Instead of inviting quests to praise them in areas where they were already excelling, the proprietors should have been asking guests to tell them where they were failing.

A useful questionnaire would have answered the ultimate question: Are we giving our guests what they want? Of course, that type of survey requires thicker skin than many entrepreneurs possess. When you ask for the unvarnished truth from your customers and clients, you never know what kind of unflattering or demoralising comments you will elicit. But it is absolutely necessary. If you do not ask your customers where you are messing up, how can you ever correct the problem and grow? I suppose I should mention my own personal hypocrisy here. I am scolding the resort for something I should - but do not always - do myself. I have never spent too much time reflecting on (or inviting comment about) our company's failures - wondering why we have not been hired for that assignment or why that client has signed with someone else, or left us.

Part of the reason is the mental make-up of every person who sells. If you sell for a living, you are basically in the rejection business. People will tell you ''no'' more often than they tell you ''yes''. Frequent disappointment comes with the territory.

Every salesperson has his own set of mental gymnastics to deal with this situation. I have always thought of selling as a round of golf. In golf the measure of success is how you play against par. You are never going to birdie every hole. And you are certainly going to shoot your share of bogeys and double bogeys (like rejections in selling, they come with the territory).

The key is not to be discouraged by the occasional bogey and certainly not to let that disappointment spill over into how you play the next hole. If, at the end of the day, you have more good holes than bad ones, that is a successful round.

The same in sales: The key is to be able to shrug off all the prospects who show you the door or refuse to take your calls, and concentrate on the one or two bright spots. At the end of the day, if you win more than you lose, you are ahead of the game. That is what keeps you moving forward and knocking on more doors.

Some people may call that denial. But I think it is a healthy denial. Without it, most of us would be paralysed by the fear of failure.

But there are two sides to dealing with failure. Blocking out your disappointments may be crucial for staying motivated, but there is a danger in totally ignoring the reasons those disappointments occur. It is a question of balance.

Accomplished as I am at denying failure, at some point in our business it is clearly productive for us to step back and ask ourselves the tough questions behind our failures: Why did we lose that client? What is the competition doing that we are not? Was our price too high? Was it something in the way our people presented themselves or performed? From here, it does not take much of a mental leap to actually go back to the client and present the same questions to him directly. The answers may not be pretty. They may paint a portrait of your organisation that is far less kinder than the one you picture in your mind. But the answers will certainly start to wash away the arrogance, ignorance, or self-satisfaction that is stifling your success.

One of my most productive meetings recently has been a call on a major sponsor in which I asked the company's senior managers to tell us: What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What can we do to get better? I had scheduled a half day for the discussion, so I cannot say I was totally prepared for the full day of broadsides and documented critiques the managers offered.

It was not pretty, but it was enlightening. They pinpointed weaknesses I had considered our strengths. But most important, it cemented our relationship. In effect, I was giving them a questionnaire that asked the questions on their mind. The message to the company's managers was the one every client or customer longs to hear: ''You're calling the shots. We're willing to change to make you happy. Tell us.'' It takes a tough person to be able to shut out all the failures and negatives in business. It takes an even tougher person to look them in the eye and deal with them.

Question: As part of a massive drive to boost sales at our company, I've started surveying our customers to find out what we're doing wrong and how we can improve. But the CEO, who hates anything that smacks of ''market research'', is very sceptical of the survey results because they do not conform with his preconceived opinions. What argument can I make to turn him around? Answer: For one thing, if the boss hates research, I would not call your survey ''market research''. Why not simply summarise your findings in a random list of ''What Our Customers Like'' and ''What Our Customers Don't Like''. But that's just labelling. You've got a more serious problem.

You are surveying the wrong people. You should not be talking to current customers; they obviously are positively predisposed to you since they are still buying from you. You should really be talking to former customers - to find out why they left! They are the ones who will give you the unvarnished truth.

In that sense, perhaps your CEO is not so silly to question your survey?