On being ... unspoken

By Ingrid Sapona

I usually work alone but I recently got a project that required specialized services that I sub-contracted out to a consulting firm I had worked with before on some small projects. In bidding on the project, I shared with the sub-contractor the actual deadlines because I wanted to be sure they understood the timeframe and expectations. When my proposal was accepted we were both excited and hopeful, figuring that if we did a good job there might be some follow-on work for both of us from this client.

Keen to make a good impression, we decided to deliver a bit more than the client expected on the first deadline. The day before the first deadline the sub-contractor sent me one of the two items we had agreed on submitting and they promised to send the other item the next morning. By early afternoon of the next day I still hadn’t received the second item, so I phoned them. They said the second item took more time than expected but that they’d get it to me by 4:30 p.m. That didn’t leave me enough time to review it and get it to the client by close of business that day.

Because I knew the client hadn’t expected a more complete version of the second item, I decided to send them the finalized first item and my draft of the second item. I was personally disappointed we didn’t send the client all we planned, but I didn’t explicitly tell the sub-contractor I felt they let me down.

Interestingly, after the first deadline the sub-contractor didn’t hesitate to express their frustration that the project was taking more time than they budgeted for. Though I was irritated that they hadn’t come through with all we agreed on, I did feel for them because I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re being underpaid. Because the deal was cut, the most I could do was assure them that I’d do all I could to ensure they wouldn’t spend any more time than necessary.

The final deadline was a couple weeks later on a Thursday. On Monday of that week the sub-contractor phoned to let me know they’d be e-mailing me most of the stuff later that day. I was relieved to hear that and reminded them that I had more to do on it once I got it back from them. My relief was short-lived, however, as the day passed and I didn’t get anything from them. Tuesday morning, when I saw they had finally e-mail the stuff at 11 p.m., I realized we have different views of what “later” means.

That day we were both busy on different aspects of the project but again they assured me they’d send stuff later that day. Once again, however, I went to bed without receiving anything. Wednesday morning I had an e-mail waiting for me -- this time it time stamped 2:35 a.m. I e-mailed them to confirm I had received it and I joked that I felt like we’re in different time zones, given the times they were sending things. Also, worried that we have very different concepts of what constitutes timely delivery, I also took the opportunity to explicitly tell them my intention was to deliver the final project first thing Thursday, not at the close of business (which is what I suspect they were planning on).

At about 3 p.m. on Wednesday they e-mailed saying they’d send their final version to me “around dinner time, or sooner”. By 9 p.m. I hadn’t received anything, so I contacted them to find out what was wrong. They reassured me they were “just proofing it” and said I’d have it soon. “Soon” turned out to be just after midnight! Determined to deliver early in the day, I worked through the night to finalize it and I sent off to the client by 9:30 Thursday morning. Ultimately, we delivered a quality product and the client was happy, which is the most important thing, but it was a trying experience.

Friends I complained to during the process have been surprised by my response when they’ve asked me whether I’d work with that consulting firm again. The truth is, I probably would, though I’d do one thing differently. (No, I’m not talking about giving them “fake deadlines” – you know, two or three days before the real ones. I don’t like it when I feel clients might be doing that to me, so I’m not inclined to do that to others.)

What I would do differently is that I’d make sure I tell them about the one and only rule I apply to all my assignments: under promise, over deliver -- and I’d insist they apply it when dealing with me. I’m quite sure that if they’d have done that, I’d have been spared a lot of anxiety. For example, rather than promising me something “later that day” -- it would have been much better for them to simply promise they’d get it to me by noon the next day. That way, when I open my e-mail the next morning and see they sent something at 11 p.m. the night before, my expectations have not only been met -- they’ve been exceeded!

In my own defense, I must say that the idea of managing expectations hardly seems revolutionary -- it just makes good business sense, which is why I assumed it went without saying… (And that, of course, reminds me of another old adage I should remember next time I make an assumption about what goes without saying … Yup, the one about what the letters in “assume” spell out!)

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a local yokel

By Ingrid Sapona

I grew up in Western New York -- a fertile agricultural region. One of my most vivid recollections from when I was very young is of Sunday drives in the country to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Strawberry and cherry picking were annual excursions.

In fact, Dad loved cherries so much we even got to know one cherry farmer by name -- Mr. McCarthy. He had quite a big pick-your-own orchard and he liked and trusted my father enough to let us up on ladders, even though we were quite young. In my teens we started driving up to the lush Niagara Region just over the border in Ontario. Niagara specializes in “tender fruit”.

From May to September Dad marked the weeks by what fruit was coming into season: first strawberries, then cherries, then apricots, then peaches, grapes, and plums, and finally pears and apples. Dad’s enthusiasm rubbed off on me and my tastes became so refined that not only do I have favourite fruits, I developed a preference for specific varieties (like Red Haven peaches).

Of course, my appreciation of fresh fruits and vegetables comes with a down side -- and I don’t mean just sounding snobbish when I ask the produce guy whether the peaches are freestone. The downside relates to grocery stores. You see, thanks to fruit-exporting countries like Chile and Costa Rica who have summer when we have winter, you can get pretty much anything you might desire year around -- and it’s all pretty inexpensive. I’ve become so spoiled at the easy availability I pay less and less attention to what’s in season locally. Worse yet, even when I realize that a local crop is available, I’ve become so used to paying so little for imported fruit that I balk at the higher cost at local farmers’ markets.

And, as long as I’m being candid, I may as well confess that I have even come to like California strawberries. Years ago I used to buy them only if I was making chocolate dipped strawberries -- their almost unnatural size made them perfect for that purpose and the chocolate made up for their general lack of taste. But the past couple years I think they’ve done something that has improved their taste and when they’re on sale for as little as $1.99-$2.50/lb, which they often are, I find them irresistible.

I recently read an interesting article about those California strawberries I’ve been buying. The article confirmed the fact that it’s not my imagination that they taste better now than they used to -- apparently we have genetic engineers at places like UC Davis to thank for that. Of course, the article also discussed the carbon footprint aspects of trucking them the 2000+ miles to my neighborhood. The socially conscious part of me is concerned about that, but since I’m not prepared to only eat root vegetables from, say, October to May, or give up olive oil (which too comes from thousands of miles away), it seems a tad disingenuous to foreswear California strawberries just because they spend some time on the road.

Earlier this summer a friend was going strawberry picking one Saturday and asked if I wanted to come along. I declined, in part because I had other things to do that day but also because I thought it would be quite time consuming and the berries would be more expensive than I normally pay. A couple weeks later she called and said she hadn’t made it strawberry picking earlier but she heard there were still some fields with berries and again, she invited me to join her. I passed.

A couple days later I was in the supermarket and there was a small display of local strawberries for $2.99/quart. Right next to it was a large display featuring California strawberries for $1.99/lb. Feeling a bit of guilt about not doing much these days to support local farmers, despite the higher price, I bought a quart of the local berries. When I got home, I put them in the refrigerator. Because they were near their peak in terms of ripeness and I didn’t want to forget I had them, I left them on the refrigerator shelf rather than hidden away in the crisper.

Later that day I opened the refrigerator and I was overcome by the most wonderful aroma. It took me a minute to figure out that it was the strawberries. I was quite taken aback. I couldn’t remember the last time I noticed the scent of a strawberry -- the California behemoths have barely any aroma. So, rather than devour the berries quickly, as I usually do -- over the next few days I enjoyed them as slowly as possible -- as much to savour their scent as their taste.

Unfortunately, by the time I became reacquainted with our local little red gems, it was the end of the strawberry season for this year. But, that olfactory reawakening has made me reconsider my lack of commitment to local, in-season fruits and vegetables -- and fortunately there’s still lots more good stuff to be harvested before the frost is on the (local) pumpkin. I guess you could say that I’m reverting back to being a local yokel…

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona