Chapter 5 of 22: Assumptions

Finding a reliable tea supplier was a challenging process. I didn’t think I would have much luck in New Zealand, so I started searching for suppliers in Australia. I typed in “tea supplier Australia” into Google and had my first search results. It looked like every website had been designed in the early 2000s – no price lists, no product pictures, nothing to indicate size or quality of the business. The experience threw me. I was expecting polished and professionally designed websites. I had no idea how to differentiate the companies.

One of the many things I learned in my brief time as a lawyer was the importance of perception. Shortly after I was admitted to the Bar, I was tasked with completing some work for a senior partner. At 2pm he came over to my desk and asked me to draft a simple banking opinion and cover letter. It had to be sent to the bank before 4pm so the bank could release funds that day. “No problem, I will get that to you by 3.30pm. I just have to finish off these authorisations.” I was still learning how to manage workflow and partner expectations. I had completed over 50 opinions at that points, so I knew it wouldn’t take long, but I thought it best practice to under-promise and over-deliver. “Fine. Just make sure it’s done before 4pm.” His reply was terse. He turned on his heels and hurried back to his office. It took me almost an hour to complete the authorisations. I looked at the top corner of my computer screen. It was 2.59pm.

I had one hour. I pulled up the precedent legal opinion and started drafting. Not taking my eyes off the screen or lifting my fingers from the keyboard, I moved through the document as expeditiously as possible. I looked at the clock. It was 3.25pm. I printed the documents and make my way to the partner’s office. He was on the phone, but beckoned me inside. He put the phone on speaker and continued to talk while marking up both documents with edits. He handed the documents back to me. He then took a yellow post-it note from his desk and wrote “bank needs 1pg note on AML implications of deal. 4pm.” He underlined 4pm twice. I nodded and walked out. It was 3.32pm. “Fuck!” I knew there was no precedent for this. The new anti-money laundering regime was only just starting to take shape in New Zealand. I ran to my desk to start making edits – first to the opinion and then to the cover letter. It was 3.38pm by the time I finished the edits. I now had just over 20 minutes to complete the note. I found the precedent letter template for the note and quickly entered any details I could. I knew that partners liked to read their own writing, so I searched for anything in the system written by the partner. I found a few emails with anti-money laundering guidance the partner had written a month earlier. “Jackpot!” I copied what I could and added a couple of sentences to tie everything together. The note was only two paragraphs, but it would have to do. I printed everything out and ran back to the partner’s office. I got to his door at 3.54pm. It was open. I knocked once and walked straight in. The partner was seated at his conference table. He took the documents from me and started reading. He quickly signed off on the opinion and cover letter. It was now 3.57pm. He then started to skim through the note. He paused for a moment, lifting his pen from the page and told me to shut the door.

I was shaking, trying to mentally prepare myself for what was about to come next. By the time I had turned around, I could see that he had moved from the conference table to his desk. He found the opinion and cover letter on the system and emailed them through to the bank with seconds to spare. He then stood up and came back over to the conference table where I was now seated. “You know I can’t send this out, right?” He calmly gestured towards the note. I nodded, almost in tears. He continued, “The reason we don’t send out work that contains errors is because our clients often don’t know us as individuals. If they don’t know us, they can only judge us on our work. If they find spelling errors or notice poor formatting, they immediately make the assumption that our legal work and reasoning is also flawed.” With that, he told me to leave and that he would take care of the note.

It is a lesson that has always stuck with me. The lesson here isn’t that he took the time to teach me something rather than chastising me. That was nice, obviously, but the real lesson is that we all take mental shortcuts and form judgements by connecting two or more seemingly unconnected things. It never crossed my mind that someone would question a law firm’s collective competency over a few spelling errors in a short note. It is a logical illogicality. It makes perfect sense to the person forming the judgement and no sense at all to the person being judged. The subjectivity of the judgement is what makes it so unpredictable. We don’t know the extent to which the person at the bank reading the note would have cared about the errors. Maybe they wouldn’t have cared at all or maybe they would have cared a great deal. The point is moot. Clients expect a high-quality end-to-end experience. If clients have just one bad experience, they may ignore everything that is right about a business and make negative assumptions about the business as a whole.

Consumer product businesses face the same problems. If one part of the business isn’t subjectively perfect, it colours how a customer perceives a business as a whole. Bad website? Terrible company. Bad customer service? Terrible company. Bad packaging? Terrible company. If we see a piece of rubbish on the floor of our local McDonald’s, we may make the mental leap that the staff are unhygienic and careless when preparing food. It doesn’t matter that it was dropped on the floor by another customer just seconds before we walked through the door. The damage has been done and the connection has been made. We ignore everything we like about McDonald’s and assume the worst. Every customer will have a different reaction and make a different mental leap:

There’s a cheese burger wrapper under that table. I wonder if it’s this dirty on the floor behind the counter.

That worker has mustard on his shirt. He probably didn’t shower before coming to work. I hope he doesn’t handle my food!

Oh no! The frozen Coke machine is broken. Why can’t someone fix it? They probably don’t train their staff properly.

It is impossible to predict the reaction of every single customer. A business’ job is to make a customer’s experience as positive as possible so those negative thoughts don’t form in the minds of customers. While a customer’s perception of a business will be positive if everything goes right, their perception may be negative if a single thing goes wrong. The smallest details matter. McDonald’s as a corporation is well aware of this. The company has remarkable systems in place to ensure that customers have a positive end-to-end experience at each and every McDonald’s restaurant. Customers are completely oblivious. They don’t see the thousands of hours that go into developing training systems for staff. They don’t see the incredible standardisation procedures that have been developed so that the food looks and tastes the same all over the world. They don’t see the logistical difficulties involved in ensuring that a restaurant never runs out of food. They see what’s on the surface. They see a place that is open 24 hours and makes burgers that are ready in 1-2 minutes. They don’t ever stop and think about how incredible that really is.

That was the realisation I had when I first started looking for suppliers. As a consumer, I was only used to seeing the consumer-facing side of a business. I expected to find clean, modern websites that were easy to navigate. Instead, I found cluttered websites with poor formatting and low-quality photography. The experience I had on a company’s website coloured my perception of that business. I knew nothing about the quality of the underlying business, but what I did know was that they couldn’t be bothered hiring a photographer or a web developer. If a company didn’t want to spend any money on their website, likely the first point of contact a potential customer has with a business, it is not unreasonable to assume that they take other shortcuts too. For me, the conclusion was entirely rational. I knew nothing about designing, launching, or updating a website but, as a consumer, I naturally assumed that it was easy. Since it was so easy in my mind, it was fair to critically judge each business. I am consumer, hear me roar.

As much as I wanted to pretend that I was merchandising for Walmart or had the buying power of Starbucks, I wasn’t in a position to be selective. I decided to take a different approach and go in blind. This necessitated a leap of faith. The old me would have given up at this point. I was still having trouble letting go of my past triumphs in law. These tea suppliers were beneath me. Tea was beneath me. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw an 8/10 and so I was looking for other eights in business. The reality was that in business I was a 2/10. I had no right to be so critical. I was nothing. With my budget, was a miracle that any supplier agreed to work with me.  

I wrote down the phone numbers of the top five companies that appeared in the search results. I then got on Skype and started dialling. After six rings, I got through to the first supplier.

Supplier: “Hello, Tea Supplies Australia, how can I help you today?”

Me: “Hi, I was wondering what your minimum order quantity is for wholesale tea orders.”

Supplier: “Our minimums vary depending on what you order.”

Me: “Is there a ball-park figure you can give me?”

Supplier: “No, unfortunately we can’t give you a quote until you tell me what exactly you want to order.” 

It was at this point, 10 seconds into the call, that I realised that I had no idea what I was ordering. I was really just trying to establish whether or not they would be willing to entertain the idea of working with me. Since I didn’t know what I wanted, I had to cut the conversation short and do some research.

Me: “Ok, I will get back to you with my order. I just have one final question.”

Supplier: “Sure thing.”

Me: “Do you ship to New Zealand?”

Supplier: “No, sorry we are currently only able to ship within Australia.”

Excellent. They don’t ship to New Zealand. Why would they? To my credit, I was undeterred. I spent the next few hours doing research. With Wikipedia at my side, nothing could stop me. It did, however, dawn on me that I knew very little about tea. I drank English Breakfast tea most days and occasionally had a cup of herbal peppermint tea if I was feeling adventurous, but that was it. With these early setbacks, the only thing keeping me going was the mouth-watering prospect of making $600,000 a month from selling tea online. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

The fact that I didn’t have a passion for tea didn’t bother me. Very few people are truly passionate about their work. At best, we condition ourselves to think that we enjoy what we do. It helps us get through the day and makes us content with our life choices. The reality is that we choose our occupations based, first and foremost, on how much money we stand to make by tapping into learned or innate talents. In conventional employment, there is typically a correlation between the difficulty of the work and the value that that work adds to society and how much money we stand to make. Surgeons, for instance, are well paid because they go through rigorous training and have to be supremely intelligent and confident to carry out operations on a regular basis. Yet, how many people would choose to become surgeons if surgeons were paid the same as primary school teachers? It is safe to assume that there would be a marked drop-off in surgical residencies. It simply wouldn’t be worth the hardship experienced in gaining and maintaining the knowledge required to function in the field. Most surgeons are undoubtedly passionate about what they do, but a surgeon’s passion and willingness to do the work is invariably tied to the remuneration they stand to receive. In other words, intrinsic satisfaction is inextricably tethered to extrinsic recognition.

Few people have what it takes to succeed in any branch of medicine, let alone surgery. I certainly don’t. As great as the financial rewards may be, the commitment required to excel in the field of surgery doesn’t quite gel with my work ethic. There is also a question of whether I would be intellectually capable of becoming a surgeon, but that’s a question for another lifetime. The bigger issue is that I know I wouldn’t have any sort of competitive advantage in medicine, just as I had no competitive advantage in small business. The difference, however, was that any deficiencies I had in business could be quickly overcome. After all, selling tea isn’t brain surgery.