Broken promises, missed opportunities

How many times has someone said to you, “I promise I’ll get back to you,” or “Let’s get together and take it to the next step”? Odds are, it’s hundreds of times.

What percentage of the time have these people actually followed up and made the effort to close the loop? Worse, how many times have you made this type of promise yourself, then failed to do what you said?

The truth is, unfortunately — or fortunately, if you’re a hard-core opportunist as I am — that most people don’t do what they say they are going to do. Are they bad people? Nah. Are they lazy? Not really. But they are opportunity-missers.

The reasons people don’t do what they make commitments to do are varied and numerous. However, the bottom line is that these promise-breakers miss huge opportunities to take an idea or concept and make something of it. They miss the chance to take advantage of a new business relationship that could lead to something meaningful, where they could actually even make a buck.

My awareness of lack of follow-through and its dire and costly consequences more than likely stems from my childhood. When I was a kid, no doubt I said a lot of things about what I’d do but never did. My parents broke me of this bad habit by holding me accountable. If I didn’t do what I said, they’d take away privileges, like eating, for a few days. This might be an exaggeration, but you get the drift.

When I went into business, I quickly learned that competitors and associates many times just didn’t do what they said they’d do. They’d forget to provide the data requested, neglect to come back with a resolution or just ignore the opportunity or problem. Instead of taking away their food, I simply ate their lunch.

Early in my career, I developed follow-up tactics that were almost fool-proof, such as writing myself a note and assigning a time and action due date. Highly sophisticated and technical they weren’t, but I became compulsive about doing this the minute I left the person with whom I was talking. I’d even write it on the palm of my hand, the back of an envelope or, in dire circumstances, on the cuff of a white shirt if the opportunity was cost-justified with ruining the shirt.

Next, as soon as I was in safe territory, I would write – or most times, dictate — a note on my ubiquitous trusty companion, an Olympus digital voice recorder. When transcribed, I’d then put the note in a tickler file. On the appointed date for follow-up, I simply launched my message. Almost every time, I got a response, and many — make that many, many times — those responses paved the way for a new deal of some sort or another or a stronger business relationship.

As I moved up the ladder in management and became a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I used this tactic after every meeting and encounter, recording for posterity and follow-up what was to happen and by what date. Quickly I developed a reputation for having an iron-clad memory, a person who never forgot a detail. And some of those naysayers who always look for the bad inside the good even called me a micromanager.

I simply did it then and there and got the task off my plate. Doing so can also make one feel very smug and virtuous, like doing a term paper a week before it’s due.

Some people feared me because of my obsession with follow-up and details; some undoubtedly disliked my style because they couldn’t blow one by me, as I always held them accountable. But the good news is that many more people learned from me. Some even provided me with the best form of flattery by mimicking my technique after I shared my simple little secret with them.

Most important, I seldom missed an opportunity, not because I was smart, or even pedantic for that matter. No, the real answer was that since childhood, I never wanted to run the risk of ever again missing a meal. As they say, the devil is in the details.

Dealing with the details can become an art form that can lead to huge success, not to mention an ever-expanding waistline.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During a span of 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to nearly 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling the retail/Internet/direct sales giant for approximately $1.5 billion in 2003. In January 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm. Reach him at [email protected]

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