This is a story of Bell Pottinger, but in less mumble jumble and more of our language, the one we use in our social circles and other “normal” places!

I once heard of a joke about a Psychologist who was sent to tell a man (gradually, through his skills) that he (the man) had won US$ 500 million jackpot. All was going well as the psychologist started with low amounts and at each stage asking the man what he would do with the money if he won. When he got to 20 million the man seemed a bit ready, he decided to get to the bigger amounts, to which he mentioned “what would you do if you won 300 million?” The man jumped up and said “ I’d give half to you!” That’s when the psychologist fell on the floor and fainted out of sheer disbelief and being unprepared for such news.

Though not very similar, the Psychologist is in some way similar to the situation Bell Pottinger finds itself in. I am not here to start the judgement process but rather to see if we can draw lessons that businesses of all shapes and sizes can learn from. I came up with two main learning points, out of which we can also pick smaller points.

  1. At what cost do we go in order to get our paycheck?

In the story of Bell-Pottinger, there is a point, narrated through an email that an executive wrote to his colleagues, noting that the Gupta contract will come at a cost, but they saw it fit to overlook the cost as the deal would guarantee them £800,000 and there was a greater chance for more to come. One would argue, this money would eventually lead to many opportunities like job creation, how far that would be fulfilled is another matter altogether, but does this end justify the process? The problem that I see is that everyone chose to look at the financial cost or loss (clients that may leave due to disagreement with the new client, Gupta family), and no one paused to look at the cost to the firm. A basic business principle was ignored here. We are always encouraged to weigh costs versus expected return. They don’t say choose the costs, it is supposed to be ALL costs so that the comparison makes sense and that the decision so made is the best for the firm and for everyone. This will also ensure that everyone in the firm will stand by that resolution come rain or sunshine.  

  • Do we consider the log in our eye before removing the speck in our neighbor’s eye?

By taking the Gupta contract, Bell-Pottinger was trying to sharpen or correct the Gupta brand in one way or another. Why didn’t they consider what this particular contract would do to their image?

Lessons to all of us

  1. Know your limits

As businesses, we should be in a position to have a cut-off point in terms of what we are willing to sacrifice in order to get our paycheck. This is why we (as entrepreneurs or businesses) have guiding principles that we jot down in our company profiles and other well written documents. We should uphold and stand by them always. Why you may ask, simply because those principles are the ones we write when there is no money involved (although in some cases it is the opposite, story for another day!). We write them to guide us and protect us from bad situations and keep us on the right path, and thereby staying true to the reasons why we ventured into our business. If we are not careful, and we let go off all sense for a fat cheque, we will end up losing it all and having to pay back what we sacrificed everything for!

  • Remove the log in your eye before considering the speck in your neighbors eye

We must also make sure we start everything in our own backyard. It makes no sense for a firm that teaches customer service to offer poor service themselves, nor does it sit well for someone who advocates for effective communication to stay weeks on end without responding to an email or returning a simple call. For most of us, it ends when we finish off with the client. It has to go further than that. If we can not do the basics of what we do, how will people who we expect to be our clients trust that we will help them? We MUST change or pack up and leave business to those who are serious about it.

  • Let’s learn and jump at the opportunity

One mans poison is another mans lifeline. There are plenty of local firms which are not only reputable in their own right, but are also capable of handling huge contracts. The demise of Bell-Potinger brings a gap in the industry which needs to be filled by someone. The businesses that were serviced locally and even internationally.

Next up is the KPMG South Africa story… lets’ wait for its conclusion, if there will be any!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *