There is what may be called a 'natural law', known by various names such as 'Murphy’s' or 'Sod’s' law which states a simple observation that if anything can go wrong – it will. For the commercial manager, responsible for producing the profitable income on which every business depends, it is especially important.
While many people might consider this 'law' to be a pessimistic statement, it is in reality often seen to be true. The reasons why this law often appears to be true can lie in a number of areas such as communication failures, wrong assumptions, the unexpected event, misunderstandings and probably many others. However, when things go wrong for the commercial manager, the result can be expensive and may have long-term repercussions.
It is not possible to guard against every eventuality. To attempt so to do might well be futile and may lead to micro-management, which is generally counter-productive. The effective commercial manager is one who includes contingency actions in normal business planning, to be enacted when some part of the plan fails to materialise as envisaged. However, when something that is considered obvious or unquestionably reliable, on occasions is found to be the exact opposite, the observation of Murphy’s or Sod’s law tends to be apparent.
There are many examples of how this may come about; perhaps a verbal instruction that was either not clearly given or not understood. Badly drafted orders that were clear to the writer, but on examination would be far from clear to the reader. For example, at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, the written order given to the Light Brigade, was badly drafted. While its intentions were clear to the writer, the wording was ambiguous and easily misunderstood, which sent the Light Cavalry Brigade to its destruction.
Quite often many of those things that go wrong result from misunderstandings and wrong assumptions. Generally, it is the little things that go wrong that create larger problems. There may be many underlying reasons why there are wrong assumptions or misunderstandings, but often the reason lies in an individual’s lethargy; the attitude that “it will be alright - no need to bother”.
For the marketing manager, responsible for producing profitable income for the organisation, satisfying customer requirements profitably is paramount. The success of every customer transaction depends on a series of activities, ensuring that the product or service meets the customer’s requirements and expectations, with many opportunities for things to go wrong if not carefully managed.
Advertising and promotion are ripe areas for Murphy’s law to wreak havoc. What may seem a clever advertising slogan may be open to deliberate misinterpretation or potential ridicule. Some product names do not translate well in other languages, e.g. the Vauxhall Nova car, when 'no va' in Spanish means 'no go'!
What should the commercial manager do to minimise the effect of Murphy’s law?
- Look at every process and break it down to its constituent parts.
- Identify the crucial actions on which all the other actions depend.
- Identify the weak spots – these might appear insignificant, such as sending a confirmatory email, or ensuring that there is more than one key available to access some vital equipment or facility.
- Check that the words of all communications, including advertising and promotional material convey the intended meaning and understanding of the sender to the recipient. It is not what we say, but what is understood that is important.
- Where resources are critical to a successful outcome, ensure that there are spare or backup resources available if needed.
- Encourage staff to review processes to identify from their perspective, those crucial weak points, however apparently insignificant, which could have a significant effect on the outcome of the process.
- Encourage and foster the attitude with the staff that only the best performance in customer related processes is good enough.
- Encourage staff to confirm their understanding of instructions.
The results of Murphy’s Law cannot be entirely eliminated. If anything can go wrong – it will, but it is for the commercial manager together with the workforce, to take positive steps, wherever possible, in order to minimise the opportunities for this to happen, especially when dealing with customers.
Nicholas Watkis is the founder of Contract Marketing Service, established in 1981. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a certified management consultant of the Institute of Business Consultancy.