People who sweat

People who sweat - image for article by Greg Alder

Bizarre as it seems, there really are people who sweat the small stuff. Sweat is unbecoming. Sweat and suave don’t mix. Sweat and Turnbull & Asser is also a hard combination to pull off.

Occasionally one of these detail-sweaters might turn up as a client. Instead of usefully applying their talents to marking school exam papers or proofreading manuscripts, they seem to spend their days ferreting around for any little errors that might have slipped through your system (even if system’s not too fancy a word for the way your company stumbles through stuff). And find them they do. Not only find them but, perversely, they seem to enjoy finding them. Worse still, they seem to enjoy watching you squirm when they shove them in front of your face.

“My commercial didn’t go to air!?!”

“You sent the wrong documents to my ex-wife!?!”

“You told the Tax Office how much I REALLY make?!?”

So what if you send the wrong document? What’s the big deal? So what if people watching the Grand Final didn’t see your client’s commercial? Grand Finals aren’t the only events your client’s target market watches. Just drop the commercial in somewhere else. Days Of Our Lives, for example. Probably cheaper airtime, anyway.

Sent the Tax Office the wrong file? Well they might have found out by accident anyway. Besides, maybe they’ll interpret it as your client’s desire to come clean – and be lenient.

Truth is there’s only one way to deal with detail freaks. If you find you have one as a client, find a second one to add to your own staff. But find one who’s even more anal than your client is. Put him or her somewhere in the chain of communication with your client. Problem solved. You’ll be amazed that your in-house bloodhound will derive so much pleasure from finding errors before your client has a chance to find them.

The downside? Be prepared to have the bloodhound lob in your office at frequent intervals to show and tell you how he or she has saved your bacon (or your hide, for my Jewish and Muslim readers – or your beancurd skin, for you vegans out there). A small price to pay, really. Anything to let you get on with more important stuff.

Of course, the other response is to do nothing. So what if you make a mistake? It’s not as if it happens regularly, on the hour every hour. Clients should see your VERY occasional mistake as a sign of your fallibility. You are a brilliant lawyer. Why should your client expect you to also be a wunderkind when it comes to maths?

Mistakes provide a bit of a giggle. Where would America’s Funniest Home Videos be if klutzes didn’t make a mess of things? Where would wonderful sites like www.engrish.com be if translators possessed mastery of the language into which they were translating.

To remind you that we’re all fallible, two fine examples:

NASA’s wayward rocket

Everyone can make a mathematical error. Few are as spectacular as this one. On July 28, 1962, NASA launched Mariner I. Destination Venus. NASA’s scientists had programmed the Mariner I computers for the epic flight. 13 minutes from take-off a booster engine would increase speed to 25,820 mph. After 44 minutes, 9,800 solar cells would unfold. 80 days into the journey, a computer would calculate any final course corrections and 100 days after its launch, Mariner I would be circling the mysterious planet. At least that was the plan. What happened instead was that Mariner’s journey lasted just four minutes. It dived into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after launch. Why? It seems someone omitted a minus sign when programming the computer. One small dash. One giant bill.

The missing ingredient

I have a friend who is a brilliant chef. His first cookbook contained many of the recipes that had built his reputation. Unfortunately, the cookbook didn’t contain an index, which made it a fairly useless tool for anyone wanting to recreate his food at home. As a chef, he’d have known that indices are useful inclusions in a cookbook. His publisher would also have known their value. Nevertheless, somehow an index was omitted from the first edition.

Some of the rarest and most valuable stamps and coins owe their extraordinary value to a mistake. One of the most famous is a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1918. Featuring the Curtis JN-4 airplane (colloquially known as the Jenny), a hundred examples have been found with an inverted image. In 2005, one of these was sold for US$525,000, roughly 2 million times the stamp’s face value.

Inverted Jenny

The Inverted Jenny. A classic example of profiting from mistakes.

Okay, I hear you thinking, that’s fine for a stamp but it’s unlikely a furniture retailer’s ad is going to become a collector’s item because the price on the queen-size bed ensemble had a zero left off it. No, all you’ll get is a client demanding that you foot the bill because he’s had to honour the published price for 17,463 vultures who saw an opportunity to pick up a new bed for $100. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

Want another example of an exemplary error?

Thou shalt

A version of the Bible printed in London in 1631 by the King’s Printers contained a number of mistakes. The best of these was the omission of the word ‘not’ from the seventh commandment. King Charles I apparently was not amused that his subjects were being encouraged to commit adultery. He ordered the books destroyed and fined the printer £3,000.

So what’s the lesson here?

It’s natural that we make mistakes. Often there’s no harm done. Many times some other person will notice our mistakes before they are recorded for posterity. Some like to wave our mistakes around for all to see. The more helpful mistake-spotters will simply correct the offending mistakes and often not even bother to inform us – out of a desire not to interrupt us or from a reluctance to flaunt their cleverness. All very worthy.

However, this can backfire. Big time.

Want an example?

Cricketer Ashley Giles played for Warwickshire county when he wasn’t representing his country. In honour of their favourite spin bowler, the Warwickshire club decided to release 1,000 commemorative mugs with a photo of Giles and the words Ashley Giles – The King Of Spin printed on them.

As luck would have it, an observant person (but obviously not a cricket fan – nor much of a historian) noticed what looked like a glaring error and corrected it before the mugs were printed.

Imagine the surprise back at the Warwickshire clubhouse when they unpacked the mugs and studied them.

There on the side was a photo of the bowler as ordered. However, his title had changed. The mug read:

ASHLEY GILES

THE KING OF SPAIN

Any client who fires you for a single relatively harmless little oopsy is really not much of a sport. Before most clients will fire you, your small mistakes will really need to build up into a sizeable pile. If you overlook a detail once, you might need to overlook it again. And again. And again. If your client overlooked your oversight once, he might overlook it the second time, even the third. Just keep working at it. Eventually and inevitably your litany of mistakes will get the better of your client.

The day will come when your client will go.

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