Minding My Own Business

A Little Perspective

November 28, 2005

Let's face it: Some people have really different perspectives on life, the kind that make you scratch your head. In college, I had a history professor who was a bit odd, to put it mildly. A mild mannered, middle-aged eccentric with his own point of view on just about any issue, he delighted in rebutting the accuracy of popular clichés. For example, he once interrupted a lecture on the Crusades with an assault on the idea that war never solves anything. "War doesn't solve anything? Heck, war solves everything! Two countries have a dispute, negotiations fail, they go to war, one country wins, the other loses… Issue resolved!" His take on "…and they lived happily ever after" was another gem: "Boy meets girl, they fall in love, overcome some obstacles, get married, walk off into the sunset, and live happily ever after. But what happens 50 years down the road when she's in a wheelchair and he's got Alzheimer's? How's that for happily ever after?"

Perspectives can be unusual, and they offer a fascinating insight into human behavior. Rational people can develop opposite positions based on the same information, depending on their perspective. I always get a kick out of seeing how different perspectives (known sometimes as agendas) affect the thought processes in the political arena. For example, why isn't the American Civil Liberties Union aligned with the National Rifle Association when it comes to protecting the civil right to bear arms? The ACLU will somehow find a way to make the inflammatory text on a third grader's T-shirt constitutionally protected, but is silent on an issue that is comparatively black and white. It's all about their perspective, I suppose.

Our industry is full of situations in which actions are dictated by a particular perspective. For example, take the scenario of a label customer who approves a proof without noticing a spelling error. Five hundred thousand labels later - and perhaps five hundred thousand labeled and dispersed bottles later - the customer discovers the mistake and lays the blame at the printer's feet. The customer maintains that the printer misspelled a word, while the printer points to a signed off proof as definitive absolution. This is not about posturing; each side firmly believes it is in the right. It is just a matter of the particular perspective.

One of our companies recently met with a substantial customer to discuss the issue of single source procurement. The customer, who was purchasing a particular product line from us, expressed concerns about its exposure given our position as its sole supplier of these products. Despite a wonderful track record of product development, quality, delivery, and competitive pricing, as well as strong interpersonal relationships between the management of both companies, our customer feared the "what if" scenario that haunts so many involved in single source procurement: What if something goes wrong? What if the plant burns down? What if the supplier gets acquired? What if the supplier raises prices? What if a better deal for the supplier comes along? What if anything currently unforeseen happens that results in the customer no longer having a source of supply for a critical product line? These are all legitimate concerns when there is just a single source of supply, and one we effectively dealt with through a combination of contractual agreements, backup facilities, and other arrangements to give the customer peace of mind.

This meeting came to mind when I pitched a prospect of ours who was currently purchasing all of its labels from a single source. In this case, however, we were not the supplier, but rather the competing vendor seeking to get a piece of the action. A significant portion of my presentation dealt with the aforementioned perils of single source procurement, only this time I was extolling the virtues of multiple source procurement, which we realized was the only way we would be able to get our foot in the door.

I should be clear that the two situations were not entirely identical. The first case, in which we were the incumbent, involved customized products produced after years of research and development. The second case was a more typical situation in which the customer worried about splitting the business and suffering inconsistent print quality between vendors, and the higher prices resulting from halving annual quantities ordered from each vendor. Regardless, the juxtaposition of our positions in these two situations reveals a great deal about perspectives, and the need to be cognizant of the respective perspectives on both sides of the table.

Ironically, your particular perspective is similarly critical to your decision-making in navigating the complexities of functioning as a business with a giant gorilla. That is, with a single customer contributing a significant percentage of your company's sales and profits. This can happen to companies of all sizes. Sometimes, an existing customer grows into a behemoth; other times, the opportunity to dramatically expand your company presents itself through a single major account. Regardless, you have to decide whether the benefits of this account outweigh the risks of committing fixed costs to building your infrastructure and other elements of your business around it. The cautious side of the coin strongly advises against putting too many of your eggs in one basket, while those with a more aggressive perspective urge taking the chance and dealing with any potential negative consequences if and when they occur.

In business, as in life, perspectives are shaped by experience and current situations. They are similar to opinions: Everyone has one, and has difficulty understanding that someone else might have one that is equally valid but different. In our competitive efforts to succeed, we are all too frequently prone to disregard the legitimacy of alternative points of view.

Consider the spiral of mistrust that so often characterizes the employer-employee relationship. The employee fears for his job; the employer yearns for unquestioned loyalty. Unable to secure that loyalty, the employer cannot share certain information with the employee, who therefore distrusts the employer and discounts that information which is shared. Well managed companies understand that if they don't curtail this chicken-and-egg spiral, disaster lurks.

For the rational, decision-making manager, it is advisable to remain aware at all times that well meaning people can disagree on the interpretation of facts, or in the words of Mark Twain, "It is the difference of opinion that makes horse races." It is our obligation - indeed, our job itself -to ensure that our point of view not merely be a manifestation of our prejudices but the product of honest thought and consideration. Certainly, we must remain open to new evidence or other opinions and be careful to avoid entrenching ourselves so that we have difficulty should we change our minds. If indeed a driving force in the way we conduct business is our perspective, then we must remain conscious of that perspective at all times - and of how they differ from those with whom we are dealing.

As I consider my personal perspective on perspectives, I recall a memorable comment from a classics professor of mine who described the difference between comedy and tragedy as follows: "When you slip on a banana peel, it's comedy. When I slip on a banana peel, it's tragedy." Now that's the kind of perspective to which we can all relate.

Elisha Tropper is president of Prestige Label Co., of Burgaw, NC, a CFG company, headquartered in New York City.

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