Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Dumbest Letter I Ever Wrote?

A few weeks ago, on the way home from an out of town conference, I stopped by a cafe for a beer with some colleagues. I ordered a bottle of Old Brown Dog and watched as the bartender opened the bottle and calmly set it down sideways to drain in the sink before reaching for another bottle, which she opened and handed to me.

“What was wrong with the first one?” I asked.

“The lip of the bottle broke off in the cap,” she replied.

“How often does that happen?”

“More than you’d think. Sometimes they just break that way when you open them,” she shrugged.

When we sat down, I told my friends about what is surely one of the dumbest - or at least the most impolitic - letters I've ever written, which arose from similar circumstances. 

Some years ago, we received an oversized envelope in the mail which contained a single piece of lined notebook paper with a Smuttynose bottle cap taped to it and the words, handwritten in pencil in big block letters, "WHAT THE HELL?" Fitting neatly inside the bottle cap was a jagged brown ring, obviously the rim of the bottle which must have broken off as the bottle was being opened. That was it - three words and a cap - nothing more. 

I was puzzled by the letter and unsure how to respond. The envelope had a name (which didn’t appear in the phone book) and a return address close to where the University of New Hampshire is located, about twenty minutes away. I showed the letter to the crew at lunchtime, and we all agreed that it must have been written by a college student, probably hoping to score some free beer. We decided to have some fun crafting a response, which I have attached here:

Now in retrospect, it is probably obvious to anyone that writing the letter was not a bad idea, but sending it was a terrible one. I should have been content with simply printing it and posting it on the staff bulletin board, along with the original letter, but I could not resist dropping it in the mail. 

Time passed and the letter was quickly forgotten, until months later when Kevin, our sales manager, was about to walk into an important meeting at the corporate offices a large regional convenience store chain. The purpose of the meeting was to present our products to the chain’s purchaser, seeking authorization for placement of our beers in their stores across several states. Our wholesaler’s representative had arrived a few minutes earlier than Kevin, and greeted him in the hallway, his face ashen. 

“Ms. Smith, the purchaser,” he told Kevin, “is really angry at you guys. She says that her husband wrote to you several months ago to point out a potentially very dangerous situation with your beer, and the president of Smuttynose wrote back and insulted him. I can’t believe Peter would do something like that. She’s really pissed.” Kevin had no idea what this was about, but he assured him that this did not sound like something I would do and that I generally handled customer complaints very diplomatically. The subject did not come up in the meeting, which went about as well as one would expect, in the circumstances. 

When Kevin told me later what had happened, I was baffled. I did not recall receiving such a letter, much less responding to it. Then it dawned on me: it must have been the bottle cap letter and my smart-ass response that she was referring to. So Ms. Convenience Store Executive was married to Mr. What-the-Hell! 

After spending a few fruitless minutes speculating about Mr. WTH’s character and the state of his marriage to Ms. CSE, given the tiny amount of information I had about both of them (which you now have, too), I realized that my only course of action, if I wanted to salvage any hope of seeing our beer available in that chain's dozens of outlets, was to knuckle down and eat a huge platefull of crow. I could not find it in me to write back to Mr. What-the-Hell, however, so I wrote to his wife, the convenience store chain executive. 

Here's my response:

Six years later, the convenience store chain has a new purchaser, and some of our brands are available in a few of their stores. We’re still working on the rest. I hope Mr. WTH is having better luck opening beer bottles, though I doubt they are Smuttynose bottles.