After months of unsatisfactory performance and countless unanswered service calls, Vending Times decided to switch to a new email provider. On the day of the scheduled change, we placed a call to cancel our service. Rather than thanking us for our business and just doing what we asked, the vendor attempted to convince us not to cancel! I was astonished; that was not the time for them to sell us on their sterling qualities. If they had done what we asked, months ago, we wouldn't have cancelled in the first place. If they wanted to create conditions under which to try reselling us in the future -- if the new provider proves unsatisfactory, for example -- then antagonizing us was not the way to do it.
It is surprisingly difficult to get anyone to understand a request and simply fulfill it, or a question and simply answer it. All business owners and managers have confronted this problem, not only with suppliers, but also with employees. Too many people stand around complaining about their talents and abilities not being recognized, and then punting when given a chance to show what they can do.
This point was made in a once-famous essay entitled "A Message to García," penned in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard. He was, among other things, the publisher of a literary magazine called Philistine; and he had had a dinnertime conversation with his son about the recent Spanish-American War. He suggested that the Cuban revolutionary leader who had assisted U.S. military operations was the hero of the war. His son Bert replied that, in his opinion, the U.S. Army officer who had been sent by the president to enlist that leader's support -- and had done it -- was the real hero.
"It came to me like a flash," Hubbard recalled. "Yes, the boy is right; the hero is the man who does his work." He wrote the essay to fill out the next issue of his magazine, which was going to press the next day. He had no idea of the extent with which it would resonate with his readers.
The essay summarizes the daring mission undertaken by Lieutenant Andrew Rowan, who was recommended to President McKinley as the man who could go to Cuba and find the insurrectionist leader, Lt. Gen. Callixto García. Lt. Rowan took the message, went to Cuba forthwith, and delivered it to the general. Here, Hubbard explained, was an unusual man who had the qualities needed for success, in life as well as on campaign. Rowan immediately set out to do what he was asked to do, and he surmounted considerable difficulties until he did it.
The essay deplores the grievous lack of men and women like Lt. Rowan: people who are willing to take on responsibilities and see them through to the end; people who don't need someone to look over their shoulders to keep them on track; people with strong work ethics; people who get the job done, done right and right on time.
Rather to Hubbard's surprise, his little sketch became immensely popular, and he received many requests for reprints. He made it into a booklet and sold more than 40 million copies. The work was very popular in the first half of the 20th century, and "A Message to García" became a familiar phrase for a successful initiative.
Perhaps it's time to revive it, given our persistent high unemployment coupled with the recurrent complaint by managers that they can't find suitable employees. In Hubbard's view, "the man who, when given a letter for García, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets 'laid off,' nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go."
This also is true of service providers, of course. An operation that contracts with a location to provide food and beverage services is in effect hired to do a specified job. All operators know this, and the vast majority recognize that actually doing that job is the reason they are in business. Stuff happens, of course, and business relationships can be terminated for reasons beyond the operator's control. But good operators know the importance of making a graceful exit, leaving behind as little ill-will as possible, and of endeavoring to stay in touch with the decision-makers and other contacts in the location. A former supplier that did its best, was cooperative in helping the transition when the client's needs changed, and departed with good feelings all around will have the inside track if those needs change again.
Hubbard abbreviated his narrative to make his point. He might have added that the president saw the need for the right courier, asked an expert (the head of Army Intelligence) who named an officer known in the service as an expert on Cuba and the Caribbean; and issued a simple order. Devoted personnel do their best when managed intelligently.