Survivor’s Guilt?

sorryToday I told a story from a very long time ago. I would like to share it with you too.

I was a salesperson in a large food manufacturing company. My customer was a retail chain which no longer exists.

The structure of the industry in which I worked was such that there were many companies able to make good quality products, far more products in fact than the British public was consuming.

This meant that in time, as the retailers did their job and drove prices down from their suppliers, factories would close, companies would go out of business and many people would lose their jobs. These were precious jobs, often in small communities.

I called my buying contact at the retail chain’s head office to explain to him that with fairly immediate effect, one of our factories was closing and we would be supplying goods from other factories now. I assured him that the quality, service and price of our goods would not be affected.

I had made such calls to him before, but this time he reacted differently. He didn’t say briefly how sorry he was to hear the news before pressing on to discuss and plan how we would together implement this change within his business.

This time he got angry. Very angry. With me.

He said something like “How dare you call me again with news that you are closing a factory and putting people out of work. Your company is a disgrace.”

Exasperated and upset, I responded along these lines; “The reason we are having to close factories is to stay in business. The deal that we struck with you recently has had a huge negative impact on our profit, and this is the way we have been forced to respond.”

He was angrier now; “How dare you suggest that it is our fault that you are putting people out of work? You are unbelievable. This is ridiculous.” I seem to recall that he put the phone down on me.

Not long afterwards, my Sales Director advised me that she had received a complaint about me. She was wonderful about it. She had been with me every step of the way through the gritty, painful and sometimes very personal negotiation that had taken nearly a year to complete.

She understood how upset I was.

I was upset that the buyer had complained about me.

I was upset that my colleagues were losing their jobs.

I was upset that the buyer just couldn’t see any connection between the deal we had recently struck and the factory closure.

It was a difficult situation, but with a few conversations, good trading relations were restored.

It’s an old story, in more ways than one. We prize gain and profit over community and fairness. We don’t notice or acknowledge our own role. Could I have struck a better deal which might have avoided the factory closure if only I had been a better negotiator? Could the retailer have taken a slightly less hard-line stance?

Could? Would? Should? There are many unanswered questions.

What is my point? Well I think it is this. The responsibility of business can be tough on us. Life is rarely simple or linear. We are human and so are “they”, whoever “they” are.

We would do well to remember that.