I Don’t Want to Offend You, But…

By Jason Rohlf

Time is a crazy concept. Sometimes it flies. Sometimes it drags. Sometimes it appears to stand still. At times it over-complicates things in our life, but we’d also be completely lost without it. When I’m feeling a bit too smart for my own good, I’ll start researching time as a concept, and I am quickly put back in my intellectual place.

We use time in so many aspects of our life: birthdays and anniversaries, the beginning or end of the school year, our favorite sports season and so on. Time can be a very reliable and reassuring measurement tool, even if it messes with our heads.

The passage of time through the doldrums of January and February brings about a particular element of my professional life: Conference Season. This is the time of year when we at Onspring take our show on the road to demonstrate all of the great things we are doing with our platform and the best-practice solutions we’ve configured to help clients manage their critical business processes. In many respects it is one of the best parts of my job. I get to travel to interesting locations with my excellent coworkers and reconnect with old friends and clients (and friends who happened to become clients), as well as meet interesting and like-minded people who simply want to do their best work. I enjoy representing Onspring and sharing our story with anyone who’s willing to listen. And of course when we land new business as a result, that’s the icing on the cake.

Now I’d be lying if I told you that Conference Season brought about nothing but happy vibes. As with many things in our lives, what we see on the surface can be much different than what lies beneath. In the five-plus years that I’ve been hitting the conference circuit for Onspring, I’ve had my fair share of headaches. Travel delays, living out of a suitcase, sub-optimal sleep patterns, eating every meal out, missing my family—these are all natural byproducts of business travel. But there are a few challenges that seem to be unique to Conference Season. Sunday travel, challenges with setting up the booth and sore feet immediately come to mind. But there’s one thing in particular that’s more challenging to deal with than all of these other things combined: the inevitable encounter with Mr./Ms. Know-It-All.

For the sake of storytelling, let’s focus on an encounter I had with a Mr. Know-It-All just last week at the RSA Conference. I was on demo duty in our booth, making sure to smile and make eye contact in the event someone was genuinely interested in learning more about Onspring. As I do so, a gentleman stops in front of our booth, sizes it up for a second and then approaches me and simply says, “What is your role with this company?”

I was a bit caught off guard, but I replied simply, “Well, I am the VP of Solutions.”

At this point he said, “well, I’d better cover this before I say any more.” With dramatic flourish, he placed his hand over his name badge and continued. “Now JASON,” (he could still see my badge), “I don’t want to offend you, but…,” at which point he flatly pointed out every detail he didn’t like about our booth. Honestly, I was speechless. I couldn’t figure out what his angle was. Was he trying to sell us his services? Was he a secret agent from a competing software company? Was he just plain rude? There’s no telling.

Finally, after inundating me with his unsolicited feedback, he wandered over to the next booth and starting chiding them on their booth’s signage (much to the chagrin of that company’s employee who was receiving the earful). As I collected my thoughts, my first feeling was anger. Who was this person to come criticize us in this way? Though this man was an extreme example of the “Know-It-All” type, his approach wasn’t entirely unique. In fact, these sorts of bizarre encounters happen at least once in almost every conference we attend, which tells me that it’s not a conference issue. No, this is simply a human issue, which in some cases makes it even more maddening.

As with any aspect of life, the best we can ever hope to gain from a negative situation is to learn from it. In the case of Mr. Know-It-All, while I’m still trying to process this encounter in the grand scheme of things, I have gleaned a few nuggets of knowledge. First, I need to make sure I am open minded when receiving any critical feedback and look for something constructive in it, regardless of how the message is delivered. In the case of Mr. Know-It-All, I could have written it off as someone being a jerk (which he was) and convinced myself that he doesn’t know anything about anything. But that conclusion is too simple. Why he felt the need to present his feedback the way he did is beyond me, but when I had some time to digest what he actually said, I found a few bits of feedback that were quite valuable. So even though I had to endure his negative attitude, I was able to gain something from it.

The one thing that helps me stay grounded and sane in these situations more than anything else is to revisit why I’m here, why I work for Onspring and why Onspring exists. I’ve already said why I enjoy Conference Season and I’ll reiterate the most important aspect: the people. I am fortunate to work for an organization that has excellent clients and employees who just want to do things the best way they can. They are collaborative and insightful and curious. They challenge me professionally and intellectually. They love what they do, and it shows. And that energizes me to give my very best to Onspring. I believe in our mission, I love our product and I’m humbled to work with the folks I get to work with. The value of this cannot be understated. When you’re confronted with an individual or situation that puts you on the defensive, it gives you great relief to know there are plenty of folks who have your back.

Which brings me to Onspring and our mission. One other thing I notice during Conference Season is the lengths that some companies will go to in their quest for attention. Giant booths, armies of uniformed employees, fancy giveaways—lots and lots of flash. At Onspring, we are primarily focused on the substance of why we exist: to help great people do the very best work that they can. We do that by offering useful, intuitive solutions built on a flexible platform, and by constantly innovating, improving, and establishing meaningful and lasting connections with our clients. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we keep coming back. And it’s an approach that seems to stand the test of time.

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