Excerpt from “Getting NAKED: A Business Fable About Shedding the Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty” (Jossey-Bass) by Patrick Lencioni
“Ram Transport is a trucking company, one of the top ten in the country, I think. We’re meeting with the CEO and the head of operations.”
“What kind of revenue do they do?”
Dick thought about it. “I’m not sure exactly.”
I thought it was odd that he didn’t know, but I assumed he just didn’t have the exact figure in front of him.
“How many employees?” I asked.
He didn’t flinch. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure how many of their people are independent contractors or full-time staff. I’m guessing that most of their drivers aren’t employees.”
I decided that this wouldn’t be the best time to challenge Dick’s preparation regimen, so I stopped my questions. Soon enough we pulled off the freeway and into the parking lot of an office complex near the San Jose Airport.
As we got out of Dick’s Acura, I noticed something strange. The only thing in Dick’s hand was a black leather portfolio.
Without thinking, I asked, “Is that all you’re bringing?”
Dick looked surprised. “Yeah, why?”
“You’re not going to do a presentation? No proposal? Do you have any handouts?”
Dick shook his head. “Nope.” He looked at the folder in his hands and smiled. “Heck, this thing is just a prop.” He opened up the portfolio to reveal that it held nothing but a pad of paper and a pen. “I’d feel kind of strange if I weren’t carrying something.”
I was starting to think that our initial assessment of Lighthouse was accurate after all, and that they must be running an illegal narcotics distribution business to make their numbers look so good, maybe taking middle-of-the-night shipments in Half Moon Bay and storing the drugs in that lighthouse. It would have been a good story.
We went into the building, and this time the receptionist didn’t just let us roam free, but gave us security badges and had us wait for someone to get us. The lobby was typical corporate, clean and professional, nothing attractive or interesting.
Within minutes we were greeted by a woman who was an administrative assistant of some kind. She escorted us to the elevators and to a conference room, where we declined her offer of coffee or soda and waited for what I thought was going to be a sales presentation.
When the CEO and head of ops arrived, we did our typical meet and greet and sat down to talk. The CEO went first.
“So, I was telling my friend, John Sullivan—he’s the COO over at Frigidata—that we needed some help figuring out how to do better planning, and he said I should call you. And that’s why we’re here.”
Dick nodded. “Okay. Tell me why you think you need to do better planning.”
The CEO looked to his operating guy. “Well, it’s getting harder and harder to make revenue forecasts. Our costs are rising faster than they should be, and we’re not sure why. And we’re starting to lose market share, which hasn’t happened in ten years.”
Pulling out his pad of paper, Dick began asking a series of questions. Revenue. Number of employees. Competitive landscape. Cost structure.
I couldn’t believe it.
If this were my sales call, I’d have come to the meeting already knowing the answers to these questions. I’d be using industry language and referring to anything I’d read in the Journal or in trade reports. Hell, I’d probably be 75-percent sure what we’d propose doing for the client. And here Dick was, doing basic, primary research during his first sales call.
What was worse, the clients didn’t seem to mind.
After he had exhausted his initial questions, Dick went to the whiteboard. “Okay, let me explain what a strategically healthy company looks like, and figure out whether any of this is helpful to you.”
He drew a diagram similar to one that we used from time to time. Basic. Then he wrote a few questions next to it having to do with customers and competitors and core principles.
And for the next forty-five minutes we just talked. Or better yet, Dick asked questions and the CEO and his sidekick talked. From time to time Dick would draw another diagram or chart, almost always the right one given what they were talking about, and the clients would get animated.
At one point the same assistant who had greeted us in the lobby came in to remind them that they had a conference call in ten minutes. They asked her to push it back by an hour. They were too involved in the conversation to stop now.
For another forty five minutes we—yes, even I joined in the session—talked about whether the problem they were facing was really a planning issue or more about clarity around competition. I have to admit that it was fascinating, and the time flew by.
Finally, the CEO looked up at the clock and said, “Okay, we’re running out of time here. I’d like to continue this conversation with the rest of my team, because we’re going to need input from marketing and finance to figure this out.”
Dick nodded. “Okay. Should we shoot for next week?”
The two men who were already acting like clients looked at each other, nodding.
“Why don’t we use the second part of our staff meeting on Tuesday for this?” The ops guy asked his boss.
Dick scrolled though his PDA. “I’m good for Tuesday afternoon.”
“Done. We’ll be in the boardroom on the fourth floor. I’ll have Nancy set you up.”
I felt like I was going crazy, or that I was watching a bad movie about business. No one had even mentioned fees or contracts or scopes of engagement. Finally, the CEO restored my faith in humanity.
“So, should we talk about what this is going to cost?”
Dick didn’t seem surprised, but he certainly wasn’t waiting for the question. “If you want, we could, I guess. But why don’t I just come next week and we’ll see how it goes. If you decide we can help you, we can figure it out from there.”
The CEO seemed to like that idea. He eagerly shook our hands, thanked us for our time, and genuinely remarked, “I’m looking forward to next week.” And we were gone.
I was stunned. It reminded me of the time in high school when I finally got up the courage to ask Christine Owens to the prom. “Okay,” she said, almost immediately. “Pick me up at seven-thirty.”
It was all too easy.
Patrick Lencioni is founder and president of The Table Group, a firm dedicated to providing organizations with ideas, products, and services that improve teamwork, clarity, and employee engagement. He is the author of several best-selling books, including “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” For more information, visit www.tablegroup.com.