An apology of an apology

My boss, Ashok [name changed], opened up a list of leads. He said, “Nandita, your uncle is a consultant to the XYZ group, and we would like to approach them so we can give them a demo of our workflow solutions. Cold-calling hasn’t helped; now that you know someone there, please fix up an appointment for us.”

I called my uncle’s mobile from our office line. These were the days when very few people had mobiles (and if they did, they were the clunky ones); I certainly did not have one, and my uncle was a rarity.

Our office had a total strength of about 20. It consisted chiefly of a large room where most of the programmers sat. Adjacent to this room were two smaller rooms. One of them seated some more programmers, while we ‘managers’, including Ashok, sat in the other little room. There was a phone extension in each room. The phone rang at the board and, based on the request, the call was transferred to the appropriate extension.

When I called, I heard my uncle’s voice, but we lost the connection immediately. After two more such unsuccessful attempts, I called my aunt (who was home), and explained to her that I was trying to reach him. She said, “Oh, it was you that was trying to call him all the while! He said that when he called back, he got some abusive replies. Anyway, now that I know it’s you, I’ll tell him to ask for you.”

A few minutes later, my uncle called me. Before I could bring up the subject of the demo, he told me that we had a very rude set of people at our office, and he went on to explain what had happened.Tim Black on phone“When I returned the call the first time, some guy answered the phone. I told him that I had received a call from this number. The guy said that nobody had called from this number. I left it at that. When I called back the second time, the guy said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! How do you know your call came from this number?’ I replied, ‘Look, have you used a mobile phone? Do you know that it shows the caller ID?’ The guy sniggered dismissively and hung up. When I returned your call the third time, the same guy said, ‘You bastard, are you crazy? Shut up and move it!’

[For those of you who know Kannada, his exact words were “Lay, boli magane, tale kettidiyeno? Muchkondu hogo lay!”]

After that, I decided I was not going to return any calls from this number.”

I was horrified and embarrassed, and I profusely apologised to him. He said, “Well, that’s fine but…gee, is this the way you guys run the place? Oh, by the way, why did you call?”

I cringed in embarrassment. I explained the matter briefly to him, but I added that I no longer felt it right to approach him for a demo—at least, not until the situation had been remedied. He said, “Whatever. To hell with it. Anyway, tell me if you want an appointment set up.” Despite his willingness, I simply felt it was NOT right to seek that appointment—not yet.

I stepped into the large room and asked the programmers, “Which one of you received the call from this ‘mobile caller’?” Pawan [name changed] quite readily admitted that he had received it. Another programmer grinned and said, “Oh, that loonie was calling for you? We told him to shove it!”

I asked them how difficult it was for these 22-year old guys to get up and check in the adjacent rooms—or just call out from their own desks and ask around. They shrugged. I said, “That was a prospect trying to call us.” They nonchalantly said, “Who cares?”

A few minutes later, I spoke with Ashok about it. I told him that if he so badly wanted an opportunity to make a presentation to this prospect, he should:

(a) Get an apology out of Pawan, and counsel everyone in the office to be a little more responsible/ polite in such matters, and/ or

(b) Call my uncle himself, tender an apology, and then seek an appointment (which I knew would be granted)

Ashok thought I was nuts. He said I was being emotional because it was my uncle, but I know my reaction would have been the same, no matter who. He told me, “Poor things, these programmers will feel bad if we scold them, no?” I found this argument ridiculous, but I asked him to at least call my uncle and tender an apology—after all, Ashok would be the one making the presentation to the XYZ group. He refused, saying that it was not his fault; in fact, he said he didn’t even consider Pawan’s action particularly wrong. I replied, “As the person heading the operations at this office, you ought to apologise on behalf of the organization—that way, we will somewhat redeem ourselves in the eyes of the prospect.” [And our company was headquartered in Switzerland, if you please!]

My boss stood his ground, and I stood mine. We never presented to the XYZ group and, considering the quality of software we produced—not to mention our customer relations—I think XYZ was the richer for it!

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