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Early in my consulting career, I encountered a very serious problem one of my clients was experiencing. The company was failing, months of unpaid bills, no sales for nearly 2 months and the taxman sending ugly letters. The company’s accountant had just told the owner to shut the company down. 

I sat down with the owner, Steve, in his office, and asked him what was going on. He told me that sales had slowed to nothing. He could not understand it. He had people calling for quotations and had a pile of completed quotations on his desk, about half a metre high. The prices in his quotations had remained similar to earlier successful periods, and what he offered to the prospects was similar. Nothing seemed to have changed, but no one was calling to accept the quotations. He had tried all the usual things to get sales happening; increasing promotion, calling on old customers, offering special deals and so on but nothing worked. 

Fishing for an answer to this problem I began to ask Steve questions about his time in the business, looking for successful periods and low periods, working back earlier and earlier. Mostly Steve recalled a history of slow but continuous improvement. I knew that unethical actions, detected or undetected, can seriously harm a business and I told this to Steve, asking him for times he may have done something he felt he should not have done. He was quite uncomfortable with this but with gentle coaxing, he began by talking about changes he had made to workable production methods and about people he had hired that he wished he had not and so on. Then he began to mention things he had done that were not truly ethical. He had taken cash for some jobs and not declared it to the tax man. He had delivered some jobs that were less than an acceptable standard, not told the client and yet accepted full payment. Steve’s clients were often very big companies and their corporate buying departments would frequently accept things with little or no inspection and then ship them to remote departments staffed by people who usually failed to report problems with deliveries. So it was easy to cheat a little with the big guys. 

While Steve was clearly getting some relief from telling me all this, there was still no change in the company’s activities. From previous experience, I knew that a positive change should instantly occur once the correct item is recalled and confronted, so I pressed harder with, “Are you sure you have told me all?” Steve looked and looked and shook his head, “Yep. Nothing else.” I looked at Steve intently, while he looked at his desk despairingly. 

Then, suddenly, Steve gasped very loudly and looked at me. He had spotted something and was about to tell me when the phone on his desk rang, shattering the silence. He picked up the phone and spoke, “Yes, yes, I have it right here.” He pulled one of his quotes from the pile and began reading part of it to the caller. “OK. Good. It can be ready by next Wednesday. Right away. Thank you.”

“What just happened?” I asked. Steve said, “You are one smart b….rd aren’t you Mr Simpson?” “Why, what was that?” Steve, “That was a customer calling to approve his quote. It was the biggest, most valuable quote in the whole pile. It is enough to turn the whole company around.”

“That’s is really great. I am very happy for you” I said. “Now what was it you were going to tell me just before the phone rang”? 

Steve said, “I was hoping you would not ask me that.” “Well, what was it”, I repeated. 

Taking a big breath Steve began to tell me how he first started in his business and how the owner of a small advertising company had contacted Steve to produce display items for some of his corporate customers. The advertising man took Steve along with him to some of his “sales appointments” which consisted of taking the corporate purchasing officer out to dinner, getting him drunk, taking him to strip club or worse, and then arranging a taxi to take him home. Then the advertising man would call the purchasing man the next day saying, “I won’t tell anyone about last night. By the way, how about approving that quotation?” 

Steve said, “That was how our sales were done back when I started and when I was young and stupid. I thought that was the usual way business was done. I am ashamed now. I thought I had buried all that but it still affected me.” “How do you feel now you have told me all this”, I asked. “Really great.” 

Steve’s business took off after that day becoming the biggest in his field in Australia, a very prosperous business with many employees. 

It pays to be ethical but, as almost no-one can remain perfect all the time it also pays to confront and handle one’s unethical actions when they do happen. That pays too. Unethical acts – confronting them – can restore a struggling business.

Early in my consulting career, I encountered a very serious problem one of my clients was experiencing. The company was failing, months of unpaid bills, no sales for nearly 2 months and the taxman sending ugly letters. The company’s accountant had just told the owner to shut the company down. 

I sat down with the owner, Steve, in his office, and asked him what was going on. He told me that sales had slowed to nothing. He could not understand it. He had people calling for quotations and had a pile of completed quotations on his desk, about half a metre high. The prices in his quotations had remained similar to earlier successful periods, and what he offered to the prospects was similar. Nothing seemed to have changed, but no one was calling to accept the quotations. He had tried all the usual things to get sales happening; increasing promotion, calling on old customers, offering special deals and so on but nothing worked. 

Fishing for an answer to this problem I began to ask Steve questions about his time in the business, looking for successful periods and low periods, working back earlier and earlier. Mostly Steve recalled a history of slow but continuous improvement. I knew that unethical actions, detected or undetected, can seriously harm a business and I told this to Steve, asking him for times he may have done something he felt he should not have done. He was quite uncomfortable with this but with gentle coaxing, he began by talking about changes he had made to workable production methods and about people he had hired that he wished he had not and so on. Then he began to mention things he had done that were not truly ethical. He had taken cash for some jobs and not declared it to the tax man. He had delivered some jobs that were less than an acceptable standard, not told the client and yet accepted full payment. Steve’s clients were often very big companies and their corporate buying departments would frequently accept things with little or no inspection and then ship them to remote departments staffed by people who usually failed to report problems with deliveries. So it was easy to cheat a little with the big guys. 

While Steve was clearly getting some relief from telling me all this, there was still no change in the company’s activities. From previous experience, I knew that a positive change should instantly occur once the correct item is recalled and confronted, so I pressed harder with, “Are you sure you have told me all?” Steve looked and looked and shook his head, “Yep. Nothing else.” I looked at Steve intently, while he looked at his desk despairingly. 

Then, suddenly, Steve gasped very loudly and looked at me. He had spotted something and was about to tell me when the phone on his desk rang, shattering the silence. He picked up the phone and spoke, “Yes, yes, I have it right here.” He pulled one of his quotes from the pile and began reading part of it to the caller. “OK. Good. It can be ready by next Wednesday. Right away. Thank you.”

“What just happened?” I asked. Steve said, “You are one smart b….rd aren’t you Mr Simpson?” “Why, what was that?” Steve, “That was a customer calling to approve his quote. It was the biggest, most valuable quote in the whole pile. It is enough to turn the whole company around.”

“That’s is really great. I am very happy for you” I said. “Now what was it you were going to tell me just before the phone rang”? 

Steve said, “I was hoping you would not ask me that.” “Well, what was it”, I repeated. 

Taking a big breath Steve began to tell me how he first started in his business and how the owner of a small advertising company had contacted Steve to produce display items for some of his corporate customers. The advertising man took Steve along with him to some of his “sales appointments” which consisted of taking the corporate purchasing officer out to dinner, getting him drunk, taking him to strip club or worse, and then arranging a taxi to take him home. Then the advertising man would call the purchasing man the next day saying, “I won’t tell anyone about last night. By the way, how about approving that quotation?” 

Steve said, “That was how our sales were done back when I started and when I was young and stupid. I thought that was the usual way business was done. I am ashamed now. I thought I had buried all that but it still affected me.” “How do you feel now you have told me all this”, I asked. “Really great.” 

Steve’s business took off after that day becoming the biggest in his field in Australia, a very prosperous business with many employees. 

It pays to be ethical but, as almost no-one can remain perfect all the time it also pays to confront and handle one’s unethical actions when they do happen. That pays too. Unethical acts – confronting them – can restore a struggling business.

Peter Simpson