I just made a $20,000 mistake and I’m totally getting fired!

Young Jon the sales rep, is about to get fired


Me: “Eff Me… This is a $20,000 mistake…..I’m totally getting fired.”

When I was in my first 6 months as a Sales Rep in the Steel Industry, I was learning and growing at a pretty solid pace.  I was returning quotes quickly and efficiently, getting orders, filling orders, and getting some early recognition from management.

One day I received a request from a customer for some Super 13 Chrome material. Even if you don’t sell steel, you can probably tell it’s expensive stuff.

I looked at the customer’s requirements….

8” Outer Diameter (OD) x 110” long and 6.5” OD x 20” long – each drilled with a 4” ID (hole)….. 3 pieces.

This could be a NICE order!  I checked inventory and verified our material’s test results would meet the customer’s specifications. We had it in stock and I added the extra costs for machining and shipping to Louisiana.  Triple checked my math for margin…. Sent the quote…. I was feeling pretty confident that we would get it!

Next day…. Boom…. I GOT THE PURCHASE ORDER!  $14,000!

I reserved the inventory, entered the instructions for cutting and drilling, and added the notes for shipping…..livin’ large!

4 Weeks later

We shipped the order, which was 1 week earlier than I promised the customer…. I’m crushing it! High fives for Jon.

Two days later

I get an email from the customer followed by a phone call……

“YOU SENT US THE WRONG MATERIAL! We needed 3 continuous pieces to be a total of 130” long with 110” as 8” OD and then 20” long at one end machined down to 6.5” OD.  We need this ASAP now because our customer is asking for it!”

I had no idea that a customer could order something like that. I sent them a total of 6 pieces based on 3 pieces of each size OD they requested. This time they included a CAD drawing of the tool they were making and there it was, plain as day.

I told the customer we would get it fixed ASAP and apologized profusely. I started to scramble looking in our inventory all over the world and even sent out requests to buy it from our competitors.

I then immediately went to my boss to explain the situation and what I had done so far to hopefully identify a solution.  This was a $14,000 order with good margin that just turned into a $20,000 costto my company, so I was pretty sure that I would get fired!

But to my surprise, I didn’t and this is where my career with Energy Alloys truly started.  My boss, Andy Warrenlistened to my situation, heard what I had done up to that point to fix the problem, then started asking questions and providing initial solutions.  He also got on the phone with the customer (even after I had already done so) to tell them we were working on it and would fix it as soon as we could. That wasn’t necessary for him to call, but it showed me how we wanted to treat our customers as a company.

After a couple hours of phone calls, negotiations, and emails, we were able to source new material. I put in the orders to get them the correct stuff, quadruple checked it, and after all that was done, we talked about what I learned from this experience.  He also told me he would help soften any blow from upper management if it came up. He was not going to take responsibility, because it was my mistake, but he would be there to help explain the situation to his boss if needed.

How would you feel if your boss handled a crisis that you caused in a similar way?  Well, for me…. I felt supported, safe, and valued in that moment.  I was more cautious in the following weeks, but ultimately it didn’t shut down my creativity and ability to get aggressive when needed to secure an order.  I knew that when they said they invested in their people, they backed it up with their actions.  Had they made a rash decision and let me go because of one mistake, although costly, the company would have lost in the long run.  I put in 7 more years with them and helped grow multi-million-dollar accounts and led international divisions.

If you are confident that you have the right people on board, exercise patience and understanding when an employee makes a mistake like mine.  That said, not all missteps are forgivable, and you should ensure the people are not making the same mistakes regularly without retraining or consequences. I like to look back on experiences that have shaped my career and development and here are a few things I took away from this one.

Leadership Lessons I learned:

  1. React to a crisis with poise, empathy, and optimism because you set the tone for how your employees will respond.
  2. Trust in your people to learn from mistakes and improve for the benefit of the company and their careers.
  3. Creating an environment where people feel “safe” to make decisions, take action, speak up, or innovate will likely pay off for your business in the long run.
  4. How you respond and interact with customers or employees will set the example for your team– good or bad.