Things I have done that you should really try not to – 2

I’m writing a series of articles for Linked In and I just can’t be arsed to write something different for my personal blog so shamelessly plagiarising myself…

It’s really important for a business mentor to talk not just from a point of lofty success but also from the valuable learnings that come from failure. So I present for your delight and delectation episode 2 of the series “Things I have done that you really should try not to”.

It was many many years ago when I was European Finance Director for an ad agency – let’s call it K Walter Thompson and I had been summoned to the Amsterdam headquarters of a major beer company who shall remain nameless (let’s call them Keineken) with the account director in charge who may well have been Matt Asinari. It was a very early flight and as any of you who have done that route will know, it’s such a short flight that the plane climbs for 20 minutes, is level for about 5, then descends for another 20.

At that hour of the morning on such a short flight I really didn’t fancy the steamed, slightly rubbery, cooked breakfast that came with the package in business class, so as the cabin steward leaned towards me with the tray I smiled sweetly and said,

“No thanks, just some coffee and juice.”

And as he twisted in mid air to divert my tray to the person next to me instead, we both watched in fascination as the tray took flight, hovered and landed upside down on my (not insubstantial) cream mohair sweater covered bosom. It was hot. I looked down. It had a stewed tomato in the tray. Well obviously no longer in the tray but balanced on my chest. The cabin steward, who I later discovered was on his very first flight, had a look of panic on his face that I hope I never see on a grown man in public again.

The primal part of his brain kicked in, and he reached out to pluck the offending tomato (and other assorted breakfast items) from my person and as his hand hovered about 2 inches from me, I saw the moment that his pre-frontal cortex kicked in and started shrieking at him –

“DON’T TOUCH THE CUSTOMER’S BOSOM! DON’T TOUCH THE CUSTOMER’S BOSOM!”

“FLIGHT, FIGHT OR FREEZE” his more primal instincts shrieked back.

He opted for freeze and stood half crouched over me with his hand hovering, clearly wanting to scoop tomato but unable to over-ride the imperative not to fondle the customers.

In the meantime lava-like tomato juices were seeping through my cream sweater to my skin underneath. And still I smiled (my mother would have been proud of all those years of training in our small corner shop) albeit through slightly more gritted teeth.

Thankfully at this point, older, wiser and more female cabin crew had rushed to the rescue with cloths and I scraped my own breakfast back onto the tray whilst the original cabin steward was led away, a seething mumbling bundle of apologies, to go and lie down in a dark corner and do some deep breathing exercises. The head cabin stewardess sent him over with a dry cleaning voucher and a more coherent apology later in the flight and I smiled very charmingly at him, refused the dry cleaning voucher as my jumper was washable and asked him if he was OK.

“Don’t worry, accidents happen.”

Leaving the plane, the big chief of cabin crew caught up with me at the door and thrust a carrier bag into my hand whispering to me, “You were so nice to him and it’s his first day”.

I caught up with Matt who hadn’t been sitting near me and he looked quizzically at the pink splodgy pattern now decorating one side of my chest and opened his mouth. Paused, shut it again and ignored it.

Result!

OK so that was the plan. Just ignore. Never complain, never explain – I’ll go with that approach.

I looked in the carrier bag. There was about 8 small single serve bottles of champagne.

So I arrived at the European headquarters of Keineken and was ushered into a meeting room with clinking carrier bag, peculiar pink pattened sweater and smelling vaguely of tomato. The client never asked and I never explained.

Of course that could be the mistake or the thing I did which you should try not to do. But no. That came next.

In the meeting room, settling in making small talk whilst we waited for everyone to arrive and join us, the client started offering us coffee from the pot on the table.

“What? No Keineken?!” I questioned in my usual flippant way.

The client’s eyes lit up,

“But of course! Anyone else?”

All being of sound mind (and it being about 9am) they graciously declined and 10 minutes later a tray with one glass and two bottles of their finest premium quality lager beer was placed in front of me as everyone else tucked into their steaming hot caffeine laden coffee. I just couldn’t find a way to say,

“Actually I was just kidding, I don’t really want to drink a beer at 9am in a business meeting”

And given the way my day had gone I could quite imagine getting the nuance wrong and the client had looked so genuinely delighted I didn’t have the heart to pop his balloon. So the lesson for today is that if you are inclined to be flippant and you are in a meeting in a brewery, resist at all cost.

Mind you, I have always wondered if after we left someone said, “What was the slight scent of tomatoes and the clinking carrier bag all about?” (In Dutch).

Personally I have always wondered whether BA still serves cooked tomatoes as part of their breakfasts in business class on the early morning flights to Amsterdam or whether they too learnt their lesson – does anyone know?

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