The pounds 100,000 jibe

My biggest mistake : Thirteen proved an unlucky number for Bill Williams
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The Independent Online
"It was the mid-70s, something like 1975 or 1976, and I was a newly appointed regional director at PA Consulting Group, then a medium- to-large consulting firm with 700-800 employees.

A man phoned with a direct request for business. This is unusual as something like 90 per cent of our business comes from ringing clients ourselves. So it was highly prized and I treated it with due respect, arranging to meet the man at our offices, Rotherham House, 13 Grosvenor Crescent.

When he eventually arrived for the meeting - eventually is the word - he was an hour and a half late. This had wrought havoc with my schedule. By now the devil was in my tongue.

He walked in and the excuse he gave was pathetic: 'I'm sorry, I couldn't find number 13.' To this I replied: 'It's an intelligence test. The number lies between 12 and 14.' To which he then said: 'If that's your attitude you can f*** off', and walked out. It cost the company pounds 100,000 in lost business.

He hadn't even had the courtesy to say he would be late, or phone. But it taught me a lesson: not to be upset when people are late. Now if a client phones direct, and even if he's then a week late, I'm forgiving.

You can go down the road now and see the bold, brass plaque of Rotherham House in position as it was then. You can see also how easy the layout is, with 12, then 13, then 14.

The only difference is that then, in 1975/76, the actual number 13 wasn't on the building whereas now it is. Now the building is the headquarters of Moet & Chandon. Obviously superstition had made someone remove the number, or never put it up.

I only found out exactly what it was he wanted from our competitors some two years later. Some sort of marketing: branding or patenting help. Our competitors did it, and did it very well.

The telephone conversation we had prior to the meeting was perfectly reasonable and normal. Nothing was said that would have caused any problems subsequently. I wrote a letter after it saying 'I'm sorry we got off to such a bad start', or words to that effect, but received no reply.

The whole thing is an example of how easy it is for things to suddenly go wrong between two quite reasonable people.

Victor Feather, the number two at the Trade Union Congress for many years, has a lovely story about communicating, or lack of it.

A chap goes home on Friday night with his pay packet and gives it to his wife. She then goes out the following morning and loses it. So he gives her what's left of his money for food, leaving him nothing for beer on Saturday night.

He then has to stay in. Sunday comes and his daughter turns up saying she's up s*** creek financially. Monday morning a bus goes past and splashes him, covering him in dirt and a large amount of water. Brushing himself down he misses the bus and is late for work. Walking in to clock on the foreman says 'good afternoon', so the guy hits him.

This story was a regular in Victor's repertoire when he was talking about trade union negotiations at meetings, or when giving speeches. There's no accounting for what can happen between two people if nothing's been said.

I didn't get into any real trouble over this incident as I reported it to my immediate superior straight away. He basically said: 'If you're a wise man you won't do it again.' Also, the man at the other end must have felt at fault because he never complained."

Bill Williams' first book, 'A Big Smile in a Short Skirt Won't Work', has just been published. He was talking to James Aufenast.

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