5 Things Michael Jackson's Doctor Taught Me About My Small Business

10/03/2011 05:17 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011
  • Gene Marks Small business management columnist, author, speaker, and business owner

A few weeks ago I went for a colonoscopy. For those of you who haven't had a colonoscopy let me just say this: the actual procedure is much easier than the prep you go through the night before. That experience was, well...explosive. But let's leave out those details.

Because during the twenty minute procedure I was put under Propoful. And let me say that I know exactly what euphoric sleep is all about. I loved it. I dreamt deeply. I was bitterly disappointed when I was brought out of it. I understand why Michael Jackson wanted more.

Of course, that doesn't make what happened to him any less difficult to comprehend. He died. Way too early. It's sad. It shouldn't have happened. And now his doctor, Conrad Murray, is on trial this week defending the care he provided for his patient. You know the story. Both sides have their story. But one thing's for certain: this entire incident taught me a lot. Not just about Propoful or the danger of sedatives. But, if you can believe this, about the decisions I make when running my ten person company.

And here are the five things I've learned, thanks to Dr. Murray.

1. Never, ever let a customer talk you into doing something you know isn't right to do. My company sells software. I have customers asking me how to get around licensing agreements and maintenance obligations. They want my services, but they don't want to pay as much for the software. They want to cut corners. They want to skimp on training. They want to put the fate of the project in the hands of some employee who's never run a project before. They want to buy marginal servers or lower level laptops when I know darn well that they're hurting themselves in the long run.

I should always step up and say what's right. I should stick to my guns. I should fight the fight. Because I know what's right for my clients in the long term. Dr. Murray knew that Jackson was killing himself. He knew what was right. But he didn't step up and persuade his patient otherwise. If Dr. Murray and I can't convince our clients to do the right thing, then both of us should always just walk away.

2. Never, ever let greed cloud your decisions. Recently I took on a huge project with a huge company, knowing full well that we were under-staffed, under-resourced and without the technical knowledge to do the project right. I hoped we would just ... figure it out. It's a lousy economy. I needed the money. And this was big money. I let greed get in the way of common sense. The project was terrible. As expected, my people were not properly trained to do the work. And they were busy on other projects that I accepted, again not wanting to turn down the money. Greed got in the way. And not surprisingly we were fired half-way through.

It's got to be tough for a doctor to turn down a patient like Michael Jackson. The prestige. The perks. And the big, big money. Greed got in Dr. Murray's way. He should never have taken on that job unless he could give it his full attention. And spending time texting and talking on the phone instead of monitoring his patient means he wasn't giving it his full attention. Lucky for me no one ever lost their life during my failed project. We just lost money. And our reputation. And potentially more work from a happy, referring client. Wish I could say the same for the Jackson family.

3. Don't have just one sugar daddy. I make a LOT of mistakes each and every day. (You mean that woman who I asked when she's taking maternity leave wasn't actually pregnant?) One mistake I haven't made (and this is not by design, just dumb luck) is that we don't really have any one big client who, if they left us, could cripple us. My company has more than 500 clients. Mostly small and medium sized businesses. At best, 70 percent of them are happy with us. I'll take that as a win. If any one goes elsewhere I'll be disappointed, but I'll move on. Having just one or two large clients makes people make bad decisions. Decisions based on financial security rather than what's really best for the customer.

And I think that was what was going on with Dr. Murray. Obviously he's been a practicing physician for a number of years. But Michael Jackson was the King Of All Patients. I believe he just about cleared out the rest of his patient load so he could devote himself to the pop star. Which put him in a pretty awkward position when it came time to confront his patient about his excessive drug use and poor health habits. It's tough to be truly honest with a customer when they've got you by the financial you-know-whats. Good business managers I know try hard to keep a diverse base of customers from different industries, geographic regions and contract size. Just in case.

4. Don't let customers do things themselves if they shouldn't be. Back to my software business, a lot of times clients looking to save a few bucks will ask me if they can do the customizations, reporting, installation, modifications or training on their own. Looking to make the deal I often say "Sure!" I'm an idiot for doing this. Of course, there are plenty of resources for software nowadays online: manuals, technical specs, blogs, communities, forums, etc. But the results when my customers do stuff on their own are almost always a disaster. They spend more time. They screw up data. They corrupt their systems. And ultimately they turn around and either blame the software ("it's just not user friendly enough") or us ("they didn't tell us how hard this would be"). Like anything else, you have to know what you're doing to properly use this information. You need the right background and training. Otherwise it's like putting gun in the hand of a two-year old.

...or an IV drip with a powerful sedative in the hands of a drugged-out pop superstar. His defense is that Jackson administered the drugs himself. Yikes. Dr. Murray should have kept a very tight control over all the pharmaceuticals he was prescribing. Like my customers, he knew that Jackson was incapable of caring for himself. He knew the risks. He knew that Jackson's addiction would supersede any common sense when it came to administering doses to himself. My people are certified in the products we sell. Like Dr. Murray, we went through our own certification path. As professionals, we shouldn't let our clients handle tools that they are not capable of using.

5. Segregate duties. There was a time when I was younger and slightly more dopey than I am now when I would take on clients and do all the work myself. Everything fell on me. No one else knew what was going on. I got too close. My view point became too narrow. OK, maybe this was fine for a tiny customer. But for a software implementation where many people are involved, I should've involved more people from my company. I could share responsibilities. Have a backup person. Bounce ideas off someone else who was familiar with the situation. Be able to play good cop, bad cop when tough decisions needed to be made. And incorporate my own internal control where both of us could be checking on each others' work and pro-actively looking for mistakes which could potentially harm our mutual client.

Dr. Murray needed help. He needed to segregate his duties. He shouldn't have been doing everything on his own. He needed a partner to work with him. Besides Michael, we all know there were other people putting pressure on him to keep the entertainer on task. He needed someone to share this burden, back him up, check on what he was doing ... even provide that extra voice when battling with his client and his client's overseers. Most small business people can't service big customers alone. They need to partner, deploy resources when needed, segregate duties, share responsibilities. If he had a partner watching his back, Dr. Murray may not be sitting in that courtroom right now.

I miss Michael Jackson. He touched many lives. And his death touched mine, both personally and professionally.

Gene Marks writes weekly online blogs for both The New York Times and Forbes and bi-weekly for American City Business Journals. He runs a ten person consulting firm outside of Philadelphia and can be followed on Twitter.