Monday, December 26, 2005

Another Christmas Tale….

Writing up the previous post, had me thinking about Christmas’ past, and one in particular ended up stuck in my head, so, in an attempt to get it ‘unstuck’, I thought I’d tell you all about it.

This took place about 20 years ago. I had a fairly busy consulting company then and one of the products I’d had great success with was an Accounting system from a company called SBT. I’d written 100’s of customizations of the base package, and had it installed in all sorts of diverse businesses.

One of these was a place called “Onondaga Suburban Foods”.

It was not one of my ‘better’ clients, in that they were almost always ‘slow pay’, would find 1,001 excuses not to pay, but, in the end would always pay the bill. They were one of those customers you often wished you’d never agreed to take on, but, in the end found some redeeming quality that caused you to keep working with them.

This company’s sole redeeming quality, in my mind, was their accountant/bookkeeper/Finance manager. She worked as hard, or harder than anyone I’ve ever known. Gave up many nights and weekends for the company, not for herself, but usually so someone else didn’t have to do so. The owners were ‘old school’, in that they were very tough on their employees, always demanding and rarely if ever showing any real appreciation for their efforts.

‘Old School’, where the paycheck was all the thanks you were supposed to expect.

To set the story, it is Christmas Eve, Upstate NY, snowing heavily, stiff winds, and temps in the teens with near zero visibility at times. I’ve already had a long day of ‘on site’ work in and around Syracuse, it’s about 5:00pm and I’m finally headed home.

My car phone rings and I answer it, thinking it’s my wife wanting to know when to expect me, or to stop and pick up something on my way (no caller ID back then). Instead, it’s, let’s call her Tina, she’s still at work and has been trying to get the December accounting close done before she leaves for her first real vacation in years. From a conversation we’d had earlier in the week I know she’s going to Florida on the last flight out of Syracuse tonight, Christmas Eve.

She’s also in trouble. In the course of the close, there’d been a power outage, and as the owners had not felt the purchase of a UPS for each PC was important, her close had died along with the power. She’s got maybe four hours to get things right, or her vacation is history.

Despite my feelings about the company, I couldn’t just leave her in this predicament. I knew a decision to work Christmas Eve was not going to be well received, but, I also felt I had no other choice. I turned the car around, called home and broke the news, and headed to their office.

As I had about an hours worth of file restorations and configuration to do, I sent Tina home to pack while I was doing that. She returned about an hour later and waited patiently while I got everything back to where it was prior to her starting the close. She’d followed my instructions to the letter before beginning the process, and, as a result, we’d be able to restart the close as if nothing had happened.

Unfortunately, in those days, a December, and for them also a “Year End” close could take hours not minutes. We sat watching the process, and talking about her vacation. How she’d been planning it for over a year, that it was the first real vacation they’d allowed her to take in several years, how if it were not for me automating the Accounting System she’d not have been able to think about, let alone actually take this trip.

All the while it’s continuing to snow, get colder and the winds are and piling it up outside.

Eventually, around 9:30pm or so things with the system are beginning to wrap up, so I went outside and started the truck to let it warm up a bit before having to make the drive home. We wrapped up the close, put the reports on the owner’s desk and got everything ready for the folks when they returned from the holidays.

As we ventured outside, as I recall, the weather was so bad I drove her to the airport. I may not have, but that’s how I remember it.

I eventually got home at close to midnight, wrapped up my billings for the day, put everything in the mailbox, and went to bed.

The rest of the holiday was pretty uneventful. By that I mean I don’t remember anything particularly strange or ‘eventful’ about it. The fact of the matter is, I wouldn’t remember working that night either, if it weren’t for one thing.

When the bill arrived at Onondaga Suburban Foods, the owner’s son, David, called and essentially accused me of falsifying a bill to them. That there was no way I was there, working, on Christmas Eve, until nearly 10:00pm. We had a brief shouting match, during which, at some point I said “David, no on who owes me money, gets to yell at me” and hung up the phone.

Several, (now) humorous moments followed where he’d call back and tell me I couldn’t hang up on him, and I’d inform him that, telling me I couldn’t do something I’d already done, didn’t make much sense, and to show him how wrong he was, I’d then hang up again.

In the end, we agreed to just wait until Tina got back from vacation and let her either confirm, or deny, the fact that I had, in fact, been there and that the call was necessary, not merely some conspiratorial attempt by Tina and I to ‘fleece’ (his word) him.

In the end, as always, they paid the bill. The difference was that this time, and for every time after that, I got paid while I was there. If I didn’t get paid while I was there, I wouldn’t return, regardless of the reason, until the previous bill had been satisfied. In addition, I made it a requirement going forward that one of the owners sign a work order before I’d start on any project for their company.

I don’t know where Tina is these days, but I hope she’s retired and doing well. I know the company closed down, and several years later David tracked me down and tried to talk my wife into getting me on the phone with him (I was working out of state at that time), it seems he’d started another company and wanted me to write some software for it.

I eventually called him, and said “Thanks, but no thanks” as I was no longer doing that sort of thing. Even if I had still been doing exactly what I’d been doing, I would not have taken him on as a client again. Some clients are just not worth having, regardless of the revenue they might generate.

As with all things, this too taught me a lesson. Some of the most wonderful people in the world, work for some of the most abusive employers… that despite the best of intentions and efforts, they’ll still go not only unappreciated, but be surrounded by doubt and suspicion.

I do not know how to live like that, or how to build a team when you don’t trust the members. I’m thankful for the chance to work with Tina, as she was truly a wonderful person, and for the lesson in how to recognize a potentially disastrous client. This one experience let me make much better business decisions going forward. Not always perfect, but at least the troubles were different!!

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Beth said...

I hope this gets through. I tried to read your blog, but all these pop-ups about blogging came up. =/

Bill said...

Beth - Hmmmmm... I have 'pop-ups' blocked, but I've never seen a 'blocked' message from my site. If you could tell me what they were for, I'll investigate it further. I know there were problems with the Bravenet counter, which is what caused me to remove it.

Thanks for the info!!

Nic said...

You have a real heart of Gold, my friend. Hugs to you and your lovely wife!

Bill said...

Nic - I'll take any opportunity to give a hug to my wife!! I don't know about having a 'heart of gold'... I'm sure you'd find some folks with an alternate composition... Tina was one of those folks though, who you just felt it was right to help out!!

Jada's Gigi said...

I agree, some of the hardest working people in the world work for total jerks. I really don't understand it unless they seriously underestimate their own value. Good for you for helping out one of the "goodins" :) and in learning who to do business with and who to let go on by. Who needs em?
PS Glad your Christmas turned out well

Comfort Addict said...


What a wonderful guy you are and what a wonderful post that was. It really hit home with me. In my large company, I am a "Tina" type of person, too. I just feel that it is my responsibility as an employee to give my best, go beyond the "normal" when needed. There are some others like me, some who revel in dumping work on us, others who live for procedures and processes like Sarbanes-Oxley and other people who are just too burned out to care.

Whenever I run into a "Tina," whether at work or receiving a service, I try to show extra appreciation. Sincere appreciation of hard work and a job well done is one of the greatest things that you can do for someone.

Bill said...

Gigi - I sued to think I 'needed' them... over time I've discovered that I need peace of mind far more than anything else!!

CA - I couldn't agree more. It never ceases to amaze me how far a little appreciation goes. All you have to do, to make most folks day, is say something positive to them about the job they do.

Thanks y'all for stopping by and taking the time to comment during the holidays... I know we're all busy this time of year.