Identify the power players in the organizations you do business with. Every organization has decision makers and decision stoppers. The latter are often disgruntled individuals who, when faced with any sort of query, will usually assert, “No, that can’t be done.” Face it; the admin’s job is to get you off the phone. He or she, doing his or her job, will attempt to create a buffer between you and the person he or she represents.
As a business owner yourself, you can appreciate not wanting to talk to everyone who calls. However, to get things done you need to contact the decision makers. Escalation is a way to get through the door, past the front desk, and all the way up to where you’re playing on the same level as the power-playing managers. The key is also to make them escalate back to you. Doing this maintains your big-organization persona, regardless of how small your bootstrapped business may be.
When you want to get decisions made, you have to match layer for layer. To talk with decision makers, you cannot start by calling the admin—that is, you cannot. Your admin calls their admin. If there is another layer between the admin and the manager, have your admin request that layer to get back in touch with your business through a similar layer—and then have your admin or your partner take the call. The key is that you don’t want to have to be on the phone until you can verbally sit down with your target manager or other power player and get things done.
In this same way, when somebody calls back, it’s okay to make them take the escalator up to you. If mid-level management calls, your admin answers the phone. Even if upper-level management calls, let your admin determine how urgent the call is. You don’t want to be the one to answer your phones. The chain of authority must match up. Because of that, whoever answers your phones needs to be on the same level as their secretary or admin. Make sure you have someone there to boost your level for you, even if it has to be our partner. This first use of escalation—matching layer for layer—shows your contacts that you have just as much right to be in business as they do, no matter how small of a business you might be.
A second thing escalation does is give you a way to reverse course when a poor decision or miscommunication is made. We use this tool all the time, and it has gotten us out of some sticky jams. Though you as the owner are responsible, at the end of the day, for every decision in your organization, having an escalation buffer gives you the ability to reverse course when necessary.
Recently, one of our partners inadvertently placed a wrong term in a contract we were negotiating. He had committed us to do some intensive work before payment. Upon realizing the misstep, another partner was able to reset the client’s expectations so that work would not begin until payment was received. One of the powers of partners is the ability to play good cop or bad cop as needs be.
The third invaluable tool that comes from a line of escalation or an “admin buffer” is crucial: you have time to react. When faced with a ringing phone and a direct line of questioning, you may feel pressured to make decisions quickly. Sometimes this works out perfectly; other times, you make mistakes. It’s much better if the question goes through an admin.
Even if you don’t have an admin, be the admin for a moment. Say that you need to think it through, or to talk it through with one of the partners. Confidence in any relationship can be undermined with even one mistake, so to buy time by not shooting from the hip and by instead using an admin or time buffer gives you the ability to react appropriately, deliberately, and thoughtfully. Don’t let a customer press you into a knee-jerk decision. There are very few cases where someone has to have the answer right now.
Your administrative assistant plays a crucial role in escalating your business, as I explained. When I was first starting at Mitsubishi, we were a relatively small office, attempting to land a contract with a very large company out of Chicago. This company built many of the pinball machines and video games that are available throughout the world. My administrative assistant—the wonderful Shawn Jensen—had left a message with the vice president, and a couple of days later he called back. We were a small enough division at the time that I was painfully aware when a VP called back. I was available at that moment to talk, but Shawn answered the call smoothly, saying, “Oh yes, you’re trying to reach Mr. Christiansen. He’s available at either 10:25 or 2:50 for approximately 15 minutes. If those times are not possible,” she casually mentioned, “you’ll have to wait a few days because Mr. Christiansen is flying down to Mexico for a weekend with his wife and then to the UK to take care of some business there.”
Shawn’s collected, confident nature further established my credibility and escalated my importance in the eyes of this VP. Everything she said was true, even if a bit embellished. In the end, the vice president got the message: Rich Christiansen is a very important and a very busy man.
In the early stages of your business, you might not have all of the pieces in place. The important thing is to act like you do. In the early stages of my startup with Ron, any time either of us got into a tight spot where we didn’t have a definitive answer, we’d say to the customer, “I need to talk with my partner.” That bought us time to mull it over ourselves before we approached each other to confer. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even have to check with Ron, or him with me, before we could reach a decision. But it gave us time. The key is to have the levels in place so you have the space and time to step back and take a clear-headed approach.
Porter’s Points – Escalation
- You need to put an escalation path in place— admin, mid-level management, owners—for those times when you require time or space to respond.
- If you are a team of one, get comfortable saying, “I need time to think that over. Let me get back to you.”
- You don’t want to be like the government. Escalation can obscure critical decisions at the bottom of the chain of command. Role play or talk through how escalation will function—who are the key people, interaction points, clients, and vendors that need to be escalated? Put a buffer in place, then follow up with decisions and communication!