Volume 39, Issue 6, June 2004
by Lyle R. Hill
I once heard it said that “experience is the harshest of teachers because she gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.” I guess this is true, but I always liked what Bismarck had to say about experience. He was the one who said “Fool you are to say you learn by your experiences; I prefer to profit by the mistakes of others and avoid the price of my own.” Now I don’t know which Bismarck it was who said this . . . the one they named the World War II battleship after or the one they named the town in North Dakota after . . . but either way, he was right. And there is a great deal that we can learn from others—both good and bad.
I could sense that he wasn’t having a good day and that my phone call had bothered him. But I wasn’t having the best of days either, and I had a right to call. He owed us a fair amount of money and most of it was long past due. I had committed myself to remaining calm, and I was determined to be both firm and as pleasant possible.
“John,” I began, “were you pleased with the work we did for you?”
“Yeah, your guys did a nice job,” he replied.
“And you feel that we charged you a fair price for the material and labor that we provided?”
“Of course,” he responded, “I wouldn’t have given you the job in the first place if your price wasn’t good.”
I could now detect a fair amount of agitation in his voice, but I pressed on.
“OK,” I began, “I’m glad to hear all that, and we appreciate your business. However, you owe us a lot of money John, and we really need you to get your account brought up-to-date.”
“Are you calling me a deadbeat?” he asked with a new level of agitation.
“No, I’m not,” I calmly replied, “but these bills are several months past due and we really must get paid.”
“Are you threatening me?” he now roared into the phone. “Because if you are, I’m taking you out of the hat!”
Now at this point in the conversation, I was completely baffled. What could “taking me out of the hat” possibly mean? Was this the equivalent of simply “taking me out” as in “rubbing me out” or “wiping me out?” Being from Chicago, I am pretty current with these kinds of terms, but I’ve never heard of being “taken out of the hat.” I had to find out.
“John, I must confess ignorance,” I stated. “Please tell me what taking me out of the hat means?”
“OK,” he began. “I’ll tell you. Each week I take all of the bills that are due for payment and I put them in a hat. Then, depending on how things are going, I randomly pick so many bills out of the hat and pay them. This way, everyone has an equal chance of being paid. I think this is a very fair approach. Unfortunately for you, you just haven’t been lucky enough to be one of the bills that got picked out for payment. But I like you guys, so believe me, I’d hate to have to take you out of the hat and take away any chance you might have for getting paid.”
“Well, thank you, John, I appreciate that,” I replied. “And we like you too so if I’ve offended you in any way, please accept my apology. The last thing in the world that I want to have happen is to be taken out of your hat!”
A few weeks went by and we received some, but not all of the money that was due us. Then one day the call that I expected came in.
“Lyle, it’s John,” he began. “Did the reflective units come in yet for the Centerpointe job?”
“Yes, we received them several days ago,” I replied.
“Well, you gotta install them immediately,” he said. “These guys are going crazy … they want their building finished and they’re one of my biggest customers. You gotta help me.”
“I’ll do what I can, John, but we’re pretty busy right now.”
“I can’t wait,” he yelled. “You’re killing me. I need an answer and I need it now.”
“OK, John,” I replied calmly, “but there’s something you probably need to know.”
“What?” he screamed.
“Well, John after that last conversation we had a few weeks ago . . . I’m sure you remember . . . it was the one about us getting paid in a timely manner. Your explanation impressed me so much that I immediately went out and followed your example.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” he asked.
“John … I bought a hat of my own … and you’re in it.”
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