“Please don’t do this, ladies,” said the voice from the phone speaker. “It’d be my career, my livelihood. You’d be ruining me.”
My colleague and I looked at one another, then looked down, almost in shame. I shook my head.
“There has to be a way,” begged our client. “There’s always a way.”
How did we get here? We’d been working with this guy for the last two months on a complicated project, with elements requiring technical specifications, licenses and permits, proof of insurance coverage, and other information. The project timeline had several milestones marking the way to the final benchmark, the day the project would be completed and delivered to his customers. At each step, items had to be submissions were due, and he never complied. He always had a story.
The final payment, due 60 days out? It had slipped his mind. 60 days was unusual, he claimed; in his experience with other companies like ours, he was accustomed to a 30 day due date. He’d send it immediately. The only thing was, funds had to be wired from Europe to his account in Chicago, so he might need a couple days.
While on the phone, we reminded him the insurance certificate was due in 30 days. And that we needed his technical schematic. Had he secured his permit from the California State Licensing board governing his project?
Each conversation went the same way. When the Outlook reminder popped up on my screen to note that a due date, we’d call. Oh yes, he’d assure us. That item was All Done – it just needed one extra little tweak and it would be on its way. He was working on it. It was his highest priority. We’d receive it within the week. Within a day. He was Fed-Exing it.
He was a nice man, charming, humorous and courteous. The project was a good idea and had a unique market niche. Each excuse and delay he gave sounded plausible, understandable; we could work with it. No check Friday? Monday would be fine.
Getting information out of him was like holding onto a fish. He’d wiggle and squirm and slip away. One time, he hung up on me, claiming a very important call that he just had to take was on his other line. Sometimes, he was condescending, as if we were alarmists to worry about the details. Of course he would comply with our site requirements. Other times, he played dumb, saying details weren’t his strong suit, his partner would be in touch about the specifics.
Or he'd contest the need for something we requested. That permit? He’d checked with someone in such and such an office, and they’d told him he didn’t need it. Who was his contact in that office? He couldn’t remember. Which office was it? Oh, not that one, it was the county office, not the state office – his permit was on record with them. A copy? Why, no one else required one! He feigned disappointment at our lack of trust.
So August turned to September and then to October. We got the final payment, but little else. I wrote an email, with a list of the outstanding requirements and a firm deadline. Then I called him, my colleague on the line with me, and went through the list item by item with him. This was it. He had 24 hours to comply, and if we did not receive every single item on the list by the deadline, the project was cancelled.
As always, he assured us we’d receive everything.
Throughout the day of the deadline, we checked our in-boxes, checked the fax machine, checked our voice mail, and waited for the doorbell to ring with the Fed-Ex delivery person. Nothing. So at the end of the day, I sent a message notifying him the project was cancelled.
So why were we talking to him now?
I figured the next move was his. But throughout the next day, there was no word from him. My co-workers and I wondered. Did he get the notice? Did he think we weren’t serious? Would he just show up on the project date as if nothing had happened? Or would we never hear from him again?
He had customers. And vendors. And other contractors. The project was almost ready, and they were calling – can we deliver this? What time does that happen? Where do I go for…? What could we tell these callers? It didn’t seem right to say, “The project has been cancelled,” to the public.
This is what bugs me the most about people like him. They play on our instincts for decency. We knew that a cancellation would affect many more people than him. Those people would be hurt, they would have a financial loss. It was important that we minimize the hurt to them. But why did we seem to care more about his customers than he did?
“We don’t know what happened,” said my supervisor. “Maybe he’s hurt, maybe an accident happened. We need to know that he got the message, because it’s not just him – other people depend on him.” She told me to track him down, so, feeling foolish, I did, finally reaching one of his partners.
“Can you ask Mr. Client to contact me?” I said, “It’s urgent.”
“What is it regarding?” asked his partner.
I almost said, “It’s about the cancellation of your project,” – but I stopped myself. “Can you just have him contact me at once?”
When he called back, I put him on speaker phone with my supervisor. We listened as the lies just spilled out of him. Everything was done, he claimed, everything was in order, we would have it all. He’d received the notice but thought our phone conversation gave him more time. He didn’t receive the notice, because his email server had been down. The agency he was working with had been closed unexpectedly. His assistant had misunderstood the urgency of the task. The vendor had been paid and was faxing a copy of the contract. The permit was on file. The check had cleared. The insurance broker had the policy. He’d hand-deliver a certified check. It was his first priority. We’d receive it within the hour. We’d receive it in 90 minutes. We’d receive it by close of business today.
And then he pulled out the tears. “It would be my career. I would be ruined. I would lose my job, and lose my livelihood. There has to be a way to save this. There’s always a way.”
What do you think? Was that a lie, too? Or was it the only true thing he ever told us? Would you give him another chance?