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BUSINESS PLANS

The Mistake of the Month Award
 

Everyone goofs from time to time. Here's how one firm learns from its errors.
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Screwing up can cost you your job at many companies. Not at Brogan & Partners, a marketing and advertising agency in Detroit. Fourteen years ago, CEO Marcie Brogan introduced the "Mistake of the Month" award, which honors employees who confess their blunders to the rest of the staff. "Sharing a mistake is just as valuable as sharing a best practice," Brogan says. "Everyone learns from it." It wasn't easy getting the first guilty parties to stand up. At first, Brogan "primed the pumps," cajoling senior staffers to come clean during the agency's monthly meeting. Now, it's not unusual for two or three employees to fess up. The 60-person staff votes on the best mistake, with the winner snagging $50. It's a sound investment, says Mary Zellmer-Bruhn, professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. "If an employee doesn't speak up, the risk is that the same mistake might be happening elsewhere in the company," she says. "And that could be costly."

With that in mind, here are a few of Brogan's favorite slip-ups -- and what the company learned from them.

The Blunder: Late last year, Brogan and several staffers drove two hours to make a major presentation at a client's office. In preparation, they created several copies of a 25-page document to leave with the customer. Brogan wrote six or seven pages of the document herself, but didn't bother to review them on page since she had already done so on her computer. Bad move. Just before handing out the document at the meeting, Brogan casually flipped through it and saw her section was completely out of order. Even worse, a chunk of it was from an earlier version that she had subsequently revised. An account director had to make an emergency trip to the agency, fix the document, and drive another two hours back to the client.

The Moral: Never skip your final flight check. "That document was sitting on my lap for two hours in the car," Brogan says. "I should have looked at it."

The Blunder: Last fall, Brogan partner Scott Werner spent a weekend hustling to finish a pitch being presented to a potential client on Monday morning. He was in the home stretch, printing out hundreds of pages on the agency's color printer, when the machine went kaput. With no technician to call, Werner rushed to Kinko's to get his materials printed in time -- a job that cost the agency a couple of thousand dollars.

The Moral: Plan ahead. Because of Werner's experience, the agency now brings in a technician to check the color printer before any big projects are due. And it keeps a repair guy on call for emergencies.

The Blunder: During the 2003 holiday season, Jay Dolata, Brogan's PR manager, mailed gifts to more than 50 clients. One gift was a set of three leopard-print golf-club covers. Unfortunately, it was not completely obvious what they were. "I knew what they were so I figured everyone else did," he says. They didn't: The agency received notes thanking it for the wine warmers or the slippers. "One person wrote, 'Thank you for the mittens, but I don't know what to do with the third one," Dolata says.

The Moral: Assume nothing. Dolata cleared up the confusion with a note to clients -- and told them that his gaffe earned him the Mistake of the Month.

The Blunder: Jim Tobin, a partner at the firm, signed up for unlimited Internet access on his company mobile phone. The cost? Just $8 a month. Rather than submitting his phone bill every month to Brogan, Tobin signed up for automatic payment using his corporate credit card. "I didn't even look at the bill," he says. When he did, he found he'd been socked for nearly $4,000. Turns out, Tobin's $8 plan only covered 500 kilobytes a month; his usage topped two megabytes. After numerous rounds with customer service reps -- and a direct appeal to the wireless carrier's vice president of customer service -- Tobin got a refund. Today he pays $30 a month for Internet access on his phone (and he reads his statement very carefully).

The Moral: Never sign up for auto payment with your corporate credit card. By the time Tobin noticed the exorbitant charges, he had lost time to appeal the bill.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2005




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