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Ask the Ethics Guy!

Windfall Dos and Don'ts

Impressed by a news segment about a top-of-the-line (but affordable) musical instrument made by a band of dedicated craftspeople, I decided I had to have one. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. The company’s website said that its sudden fame had resulted in a deluge of orders and warned it would take three to four months for my gizmo to arrive. I placed an order anyway, paid in full, and eagerly awaited the day it would show up.

I’m still waiting—14 months later.

Based on my ongoing headaches dealing with a company I’ll call No-Show Enterprises, I offer five rules for businesses that find themselves overwhelmed by demand for their products.

1. Set a reasonable production schedule. No-Show Enterprises was inadequately prepared for the effects of an appearance on national TV. Most enterprises can only dream of having this kind of problem. But No-Show severely underestimated how long it would take to manufacture its product, causing frustration for customers and employees alike.

The company should have given its chief operating officer more latitude to revise the production schedule in light of the spike in demand.

2. Keep your customers in the loop. I’m bothered that an item I paid for well over a year ago hasn’t arrived yet. What upsets me more is that I’ve had to ask the company six times for a status update. Most of those communications went unanswered. This is simply inexcusable. No-Show’s chief executive officer, who was featured prominently in the news segment, would have demonstrated ethical leadership by keeping customers informed about their orders. Why should consumers have to badger a company to find out what’s going on with purchases they made in good faith?

3. Publicize wisely. No-Show wasn’t wrong to let one of the country’s most widely seen TV programs profile it. But businesses finding themselves in similar situations should hold off on courting further publicity until they can meet the needs of current clients. Some publicists and spin consultants claim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Untrue. There’s a time to tell the world about how great you are and a time to keep the good news to yourself, at least for awhile. Businesses that want to keep the momentum going—an understandable impulse—and remain in the public eye should either provide a realistic estimate for their products’ delivery time or refuse new orders.

4. Be prepared to apologize. A running gag in the 1970s sitcom Happy Days was Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli’s inability to admit a mistake. The words “I was” came out fine, but “wrong,” always tripped him up. Businesses that overpromise or underdeliver should avoid the Fonzie syndrome. They owe their customers an apology. When you mess up, you should say: “I’m sorry.” Then make appropriate reparations.

5. Ask for help. It isn’t a sign of weakness to admit you have more on your plate than you can handle. Refusing to accept reality is. If your company cannot fill orders in a timely fashion, not only are you entitled to ask for help, you have an ethical duty to do so. After all, an organization’s first obligation is to its stakeholders. When a company’s success threatens its ability to honor this responsibility, it may be time to hire more people temporarily or permanently (although this doesn’t mean outsourcing customer service positions).

The demand that can result from publicity about your company’s good works can indeed be stressful to satisfy, but it doesn’t have to hamstring you. Following these guidelines will help you meet three valuable objectives: satisfying your customers, making a profit, and running your business with ethical intelligence.

Postscript: After I submitted this article for publication, I felt I’d given No-Show Enterprises the benefit of the doubt for too long, so I asked for my money back. A few days later, the company told its customers via e-mail that it could not meet the demand for its products and was going out of business. (Notably absent was any sort of apology.) It stated that a separate enterprise would fill its back orders. Since No-Show no longer had credibility with me, I contacted my credit-card company, which promptly refunded my money. A Facebook page independently created for No-Show’s disgruntled customers reveals that others have not been so fortunate. More than ever, I hope companies will learn from No-Show’s mistakes and use ethical intelligence as the basis of business decisions in the wake of positive publicity.

How has your business dealt with a surge in popularity? Tell me via my website.

Bruce Weinstein, PhD, is the author of Ethical Intelligence (New World Library, 2011) and host of "Ask the Ethics Guy!" on Bloomberg Businessweek's online management channel. He frequently gives keynote addresses on ethics and leadership to businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools across the U.S. Readers can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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