There are business orders you get that feel like manna from heaven, only for them to turn into something from Friday the 13th movie. This is how my 2018 started off, after a challenging first year of business and wondering whether to fold it or re-think the business model. We landed the biggest order in the company’s infancy. Butali House has a service called Book Buy, which essentially is getting books you cannot find in the local bookshops. This service began sometime in July 2017 with a lot of trial and error as we were perfecting the process. It was like training for this order that would come our way, and we were ready for it. But then the unexpected happened the nightmare began.
The order we received was from an education institution who needed the books urgently, and we understood this very well. We had the confidence of an undefeated heavyweight boxer and assured the client that we would deliver the books in time. They paid us in full, and we promised to fulfil the end of our bargain. Now, there are two third parties involved in the Book Buy service, the sellers of the books who are primarily in the UK and the logistics company that transports the books to us. It is a fairly straight-forward process, and since we had been doing this for like six months, we could estimate delivery times. We told the client within two weeks the books would be in their hands.
After ordering the books we spent the next two weeks dreaming of possibilities and opportunities that hang over the horizon. We began to count the number of institutions that would need our service. This was the sign from God to continue just as we were about to give up. However, it was the calm before the nightmare that was brewing on the shores. The two weeks elapsed and the logistics company was only able to deliver 50% of the books ordered. They promised the rest the following week.
The following week arrived, no books only another shift in date. Once again, I had to write an apology email to the client for the change in delivery date and give a confident assurance that the books would be delivered. When the latest date came, the logistics company informed me that the books were not yet in, and they did not know when they would be delivered. This is the point during the film where it is dark, full moon and something is chasing you in the woods. At that moment it felt like someone had sucked the air out of my gut, I imagined the uncomfortable phone calls and another apology. They explained that there was some problem with space on the planes, but it did not comfort me. I told them the urgency of the situation and the dilemma they were not only putting me in but the company, but it yielded nothing. I wouldn’t have minded as much if the logistics company screwed up on any other order but the one order that needed to go flawless because a lot hinged on it, was the one they messed up.
I sent another apology email with all manner of adjectives, ‘extremely sorry,’ ‘sincerely apologise’, and the one cliched excuse I despised ‘due to unforeseen circumstances, we are unable…’. When you have the heads of five different departments calling then you know it just got real. It reached a point where I wanted to refund the client, but we did not have the cash. I woke up in the middle of the night concerned about daybreak. The phone ringing caused the heart to beat faster and switching off the phone felt like the best escape (I never did that though).
At this point, I was feeling hopeless because this business transaction was now at the mercy of the logistics company. I could not retrieve the books and use another company because the books were in transit and stuck in Dubai. It was now a waiting game and wishing that a miracle happens in the midst of countless apologies. Eventually, the situation had to be escalated to the managerial level of the logistics company just to get some assurances, and we had to drive close to 300 km to the institution to explain the delay. And at the beginning of the fifth week, it was all over. The books were delivered.
As much as I am relieved that this episode is over, it did present itself some valuable lessons. I would like to share four of them.
Things Will Go Wrong
I do not want to be the messenger of doom but in the cycle of a business, it is inevitable that things will go wrong at some point. It is just the gravity of the situation that will differ. For large corporations, they may be able to weather the storms whereas for small businesses it can be disastrous. I never foresaw that the books we ordered would be stuck with the logistics company for close to a month. Neither did they foresee that there would be no space in the plane. In the end, it is to realise that no matter how prepared we are some things will happen beyond our control, we just have to accept it and manage the situation. Remember to share what you are going through with friends and family for not only will you need the support, but they may provide a solution.
Take a Step Back
If I look back at the events now perhaps I should have been wiser. It is risky purchasing things during the festive season because of the backlog that is created as a result of increased traffic. The books were delivered to the logistics company a week after New Year, therefore, it was unlikely that the backlog would have been sorted by then. I was obviously clouded by the size of the order and the expected profits. Next time, I hope to be more patient take a step back, have upfront discussions with the logistic company and place a caveat for clients who want books during the festive season of possible delays.
Looking at the circumstance in the way this all unfolded, I would have a concrete reason to switch to another logistics company. However, I am cautious about taking that step as I am considering that this was the first time that I was disappointed. I acknowledge the situation could have been handled better from their side. However, I understand that a portion of the chaos was beyond their control. They did their best to expedite my collection of the books once they arrived. I would like the education institution to give us a second chance too, so I will be extending the same grace to the logistics company.
Customer Service Matters
Managing a crisis like the one we had is very critical to avoiding a bigger mess. I do think I have said as many apologies and sorries in my entire life like I did during those weeks. I have become quite good at writing apology emails. I believe that the client did appreciate us driving to them and explain the predicament. The in-person interaction helped calm the nerves and also provide assurances that we would deliver the books. Based on this experience, I have become more understandings of other business's shortcomings. It doesn’t mean that I am lowering my customer experience expectations but sometimes cutting some businesses that are trying some slack is ok.
This is one situation that I know I will recall when I give business advice, speeches and the challenges I have encountered. I have got my sleep back but time I am faced with a difficult encounter, I will remind myself that this too shall pass.