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When Franklin misread his customers

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Benjamin Franklin was already a successful businessman, inventor and politician when he arrived in London in the decade before the Revolutionary War. But he was about to risk everything, unwittingly, by misreading what his customers—Pennsylvania colonists—wanted.

Deeply pragmatic, Franklin wasn’t too fazed when Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which taxed every newspaper, book, almanac, legal document and deck of cards sold in the colonies. In fact, Franklin mistakenly suggested that a friend be named the tax collector for Pennsylvania, whipping up his opponents at home.

Too late, Franklin realized that he’d misjudged his constituents. He started backpedaling, saying he’d fought the tax but that it was inevitable. He advised Americans to make the best of it. That inflamed them so much that a mob gathered in Philadelphia to destroy Franklin’s new house. Only the arrival of armed friends saved his house and his wife.

If you ever miscalculate your customers’ seriousness, you may need to take these steps, as Franklin did:

Start the spin cycle. Franklin began a letter-writing campaign to show that his intentions were pure and to air credible testimonials that he tried to do the right thing.

Act immediately to make things right. Franklin tried to have the law repealed. He started a boycott and wrote sharp letters to London newspapers. He also produced a political cartoon, lobbied furiously and even testified before Parliament.

Show reason plus resolve. Once he knew the extent of Americans’ fury, Franklin tried to warn the British clearly and calmly what lay ahead. He was so effective as a spokesman that several other colonies hired him as their agent in England.

Guard your integrity. Even while he “spun” his earlier position on the stamp tax, Franklin stayed true to himself and remained more practical and middle-of-the-road than most other American leaders at the time.

Franklin’s approach worked, at least for a while. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, averting a crisis for eight years.

— Adapted from Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster.

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