In the 80s, the word Vaporware became a bit of a tech industry insider’s joke. The word was used to describe products that were announced to the public, but failed to materialise – or turned up years behind schedule.
Early this century, Wired magazine initiated the Vaporware Awards to celebrate products that were promised but never delivered. As the magazine pointed out, after the crash of the dot-com economy in 1999, much of the wealth promised by tech companies was built from Vaporware.
Even though the word is relatively new, what it describes has been in existence forever. Every day, in every field of business, we see evidence of unfulfilled promises.
It will be on your desk by noon.
We have started work on that already.
One of our consultants will be with you shortly.
Simple enough phrases. Basic English, really. So why do so many clients seem to misunderstand them?
Surely everyone knows you don’t mean what it seems you mean when you make any of the promises above. Can there really be people in this world who naïvely expect the promised document to arrive before midday? Are there people who really think you’ve started work on their project just because you say you have?
Sadly, the answer is yes. And wouldn’t you know it? Some of them will inevitably end up as your clients. The first inkling that they’re the type to take your promise at face value is when they call at 9.15 to alert you to the no-show of something promised for 9.
The natural response is to wonder why these clients couldn’t have chosen different careers, careers where it doesn’t matter if things arrive late – like undertaking.
You weren’t expecting anyone to hold you to your promise. When you said “I will look into it right away”, what you thought you said was “Go away and stop bothering me”. You’d expect that everyone would understand that’s what you meant. It’s a polite way of saying “I have far more important things to take care of than your stupid job”. It’s supposed to be a neat conversation closer.
It is also a way to buy some time. A client calls and starts getting tetchy over some issue. You don’t have a clue what he or she is talking about. Why would you? Your underlings take care of everything. But it’s clear right now that they’ve failed to take care of this little thing – which in your client’s eyes is a Very Big Thing. You don’t want your client to know that you aren’t completely up to speed with every facet of his or her account, so you make a promise like one of those above.
In all likelihood you really do have good intentions. Maybe you are honestly planning to look into it – if only to satisfy your own curiosity. But, as so often happens, the phone rings again or you are rushing out to lunch and the conversation is completely forgotten, along with your promise.
Forgotten by you, perhaps, but not by your client.
Pathetically, he or she is now waiting anxiously for your promised action. But because you’ve forgotten all about it, there is no action. And because there’s no action, your client gets even antsier. So he or she calls again and asks what’s happened. If you have completely forgotten the original conversation (or if you simply want to remind your client of his or her insignificance in your grand scheme), you’ll then ask “With what?” This sometimes infuriates clients.
Here’s how your clients see the situation. They called you because you’re the boss. As the boss, they expect you to fix whatever it was that had upset them. When they don’t see it fixed, that’s bad. When they have to call you a second time to ask if it’s being fixed, that’s very bad. When they realise it isn’t being fixed because you have forgotten all about it and they have to explain the problem a second time … well, let’s just say that if they have high blood pressure, there could be complications. And fatalities.
Okay, so these might be promises you had intended to keep, but the issue wasn’t important enough to remember, so you didn’t.
And then there are plenty of other times when you’ll make promises to your clients that you have no intention of honouring. Why should that surprise your clients? Tradesmen have been doing it since Jesus’s dad was a carpenter. When a plumber tells you he’ll be there at 7 am on Thursday, he expects that you’ll understand he means some time Thursday.
When a builder says it will take 4 months to do the alterations, he expects that you understand he doesn’t mean 4 continuous months, but a period of time equivalent to 4 months made up of the odd full day and lots of half days spread out over an 8-month period.
If clients accept this from tradesmen, then why do they have so much trouble when they hear it from professionals such as you?