Waking Up To Opportunity

When you’re trying to generate business, there are plenty of times when nothing seems to work. You have a prospective client who seems really to need what you do. You prepare yourself for the meeting, and you feel that you’re incisive, and eloquent, and worth every penny you’re asking. You even feel that you have established a rapport with the prospective client. Yet, even though you’ve done everything right, nothing happens.

On those occasions when it feels like you can’t win, it’s worth remembering those times when everything went right―despite what you did.

I hope that I’ll never mess up worse than I did one morning when I had been in business for less than a year. One of the companies that responded to a mailing was a company located in Connecticut, about three hours by train from my base in Philadelphia. I didn’t entirely understand what they did, but I heard the enthusiasm in the caller’s voice, and I arranged a mid-morning appointment the following week. As long as I could make the 6:40 am train from Thirtieth Street Station, everything would be fine.

The day before I was to go, I received a very welcome call. A good friend with whom I had worked in New York was in the Philadelphia area, interviewing for a job. She had been out of work for a while, so this was really great news. I invited her to come to dinner and to stay the night. By the time she arrived, the news was even better. She had been offered the job. That called for a celebration. We opened a bottle of something, then a bottle of something else. We chattered on about old times, gossiped about our old co-workers, speculated about where she might live. We went on for hours and hours and then even more hours. By the time I finally went to bed, it was clear I was going to get only about four hours’ sleep, at best.

Fortunately I was able to catnap on the train, but when I arrived in Greenwich I was still in a fog. The president of the company greeted me personally, and took me back to headquarters, where he seated me in front of a computer monitor and demonstrated his product. I stared at the monitor uncomprehendingly as he droned on.

Then I did something that terrified me: I woke up. As I was suddenly startled into consciousness, and figured out where I was, I realized that I had actually drifted off to sleep as the company president was talking to me. Things like this happen to me in nightmares, but usually I can escape them by waking up. Not this time. To this day, I don’t know how long I had dozed. I assume I didn’t snore.

Yet, as I shocked myself into alertness, I realized that the president seemed not to have noticed, or at least chose to ignore, that I had been sleeping through his pronouncements. Indeed, he seemed more to be selling me on doing work for his company than evaluating whether I was the right person to do the job. I stayed awake long enough to let him know I’d be happy to do the project he had in mind. This led in turn to a year’s retainer, and a trip to China with the president. I never asked him whether he had noticed that I had missed most of our first meeting.

This is not a success story I ever hope to repeat, and I’ve made sure that I have never done so. I am still embarrassed at my behavior that morning. Still, it offers a lesson that took me many years to learn: When people want you, they’ll find a reason to value you. But when you’re trying to sell your services to people who are not ready to use it, you’ll never win regardless of how logical, useful, valuable, or perfect you are. I had proved to myself that the cliché犴鸹 is true: Nothing beats being at the right place at the right time―even if you’re asleep when you get there.


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to AsiaMarketingManagement.com.&n...

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