The Importance of Napkins

A few weeks ago while chatting with a client, they became fixated on the look of a presentation.  They were concerned with the typeface, their logo, the colors, the artwork, etc.  For over 5 minutes, as an example, they scoured every slide and checked titles to ensure the exact color of brown–the one according to their company guidelines–was used.

After 30 minutes of checking the presentation, we then reviewed the content.  Fifteen minutes later I had to leave for another meeting.

The client was not happy that I had to leave.  You see, the presentation they were working on was in two days and it was for their board of directors.

When I told them I had another commitment, we quickly scheduled another time to meet.

But in doing so, I was quickly transported back to 1999 when I was working at Nortel.  I had just moved into marketing operations.

I recalled one of the first meetings I attended–that my boss sent me as her representative.  You see, she had hired me because I had just finished working in sales and understood the need for customers, customer service, and managing the business.

This particular meeting was focused on an event we were planning at the US Open golf tournament.  It was a luncheon that was to update our customers on our company, our priorities, and our plans.

The first 45 minutes of the meeting was spent discussing the table settings with the focus on the shade of blue for the napkins.  You see, they needed to be Nortel-blue.  Not blue.  Nortel-blue.  The vendor extolled for many minutes on why it was vital to the success of the event that the blue be correct.

At about 45 minutes, I exploded.  Almost literally.  I said that this meeting was a complete waste of time.  Sales did not occur because of a napkin.  Sales and customer relationships are built on communicating–telling your story, listening to your customers, and working towards understanding.

After the meeting, I called my boss and told her that I thought she had made a mistake in hiring me.  I volunteered to start looking for another assignment.

On the contrary, she said.

She had already received 2 emails and 1 phone call from people at the meeting.  All were negative.  They said I clearly did not understand the importance of branding, marketing communication, and customers.

So I was baffled, given this feedback, as to why she was happy.

She was succinct in her answer.  Simply put, she said that I did exactly what she hoped I would do.  Namely, that I reminded everyone of:

  • what was the purpose of our meeting with our customers
  • what we were trying to accomplish
  • our focus should be on building customer relationships

As I flashed back to the present, I shared this story with my client.  They sat in silence.  Then they got a little peeved with me.

“Why didn’t you stop me earlier?”

Because napkins don’t make a sale.  Leaders have to keep focused on their purpose, their goals, and the roles.  You see, this client has a marketing department to check presentations for colors, templates, etc.  But on this day and at this time, this CEO choose to focus on these aspects instead of the content of the message.

We ended our meeting with the promise not to let it happen again.


Epilog:  Today I met with the client again.  I started the meeting by handing them a blue napkin as a reminder of their role as a leader.  I know I am reminded of this lesson every time I look at the napkin I stole from our event at the US Open meeting.



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