The Come to Jesus Meeting is a tool that can be used effectively if done right, but when you play the hole card, you better be able to back it up.


I first heard this term from John Puckett, now CTO at DuPont, when I worked for him at a Boston area start-up years ago. (He was just inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame; congrats John!). Whenever we had an issue with a vendor that could not be resolved, a business term or a service level that was consistently going unmet he said it was time for a “Come to Jesus Meeting.” I got to observe one of these meetings and actually started feeling sorry for the vendor on the other end of the conference call.

I wouldn’t say that these meetings are a last resort, but they’re pretty close. They serve a purpose in relationship building with a partner. The essence of one of these meetings is akin to the “Shock and Awe” approach the US Military took in Iraq the second time around.

As a partner relationship matures, a bunch of things can and do happen. The partner begins to shift resources away from you and toward new customers that they need to impress. Or, because you’re up and running, they start rotating the less experienced support folks to your account. Support tickets disappear into the ether. Your account manager gets too wrapped up in his/her new accounts that they can’t make monthly or even quarterly partner update meetings.

And then it happens… Boom. Outage…Crash…data corruption…security breach. Basically, anything that can happen when any service provider becomes complacent happens and the SLAs are out the window. So all of those white papers and speaking engagements and gratuitous magazine articles that you did for your partner all mean nothing. You have slowly become the customer of a vendor and you didn’t even realize it.

Sometimes, however, this can happen quickly. That first Come To Jesus meeting that I was a part of had a similar premise, but it was during the dot bomb period where everything seemed to be going a lot faster than it is now. Our data center partner was falling down on the job: Missing key maintenance, ignoring control books, and rebooting live web servers “by accident.”

When our CIO got involved, he didn’t complain to the support supervisor, or even our account manager. He called the CEO of the company himself. He read the guy the riot act, but in a very professional manner. The progressively sloppy attention to detail was putting our business at risk. He painstakingly reminded the CEO of all the press we did for them in the early days of the partnership and demonstrated that the reference accounts that called upon us bought their services because of our word. Our word. Just using that term is calling in question that gentleman’s honor. It had the same reaction as a glove across the face on a dueling ground. (John’s English, so the effect was a little more profound)

But you do not get to be CEO without listening to and working with disgruntled customers, so the conversation had the desired affect. We couldn’t get what we wanted going through the normal channels. Support, account manager, didn’t matter, we couldn’t get the service we needed. Only then, when we worked through the prescribed chain of escalation, did we involve the CIO. And when the CIO has to get involved in a support issue, that’s when you go to the top. Straight to the CEO. The word came down from on high and when we said jump, they jumped.

We didn’t abuse that opportunity (although we dreamed up scenarios in the breakroom later that day). We continued to demonstrate the same respect for our partner that we desired in return. This was an important lesson I learned. It serves no purpose to rub the partner’s nose in it. That’s akin to the old playground jibes of “My dad can beat up your dad.” We gave the account manager and the support supervisor ample opportunity to continue with dignity to service our account. Whatever punishment or disciplining that had to be done was done internally. We did not need to add to it.

Shock and awe.

So years later I took this lesson into a situation I inherited and discovered another twist to the Come to Jesus Meeting. Again, the partner was a data center service provider, a very large and well known one. We were a mid-sized company and should not have been partnering with them to begin with. They were used to dealing with Fortune 1000 companies and we were barely in the Fortune 5,000. But, you play the cards you are dealt.

So we had service issue upon service issue that could not be resolved. We had outages, disk issues, shared SAN infrastructure issues (yeah…we were asking for that one). All the symptoms were there… Shock and awe time. Now I had used this tactic in the past with great success. But for some reason it didn’t work here. They just operated at a different speed. So I went through the steps in my head and tried it again. This time, I said if the issues are not resolved I was going to switch to our local data center because of breach of contract. It was true, they missed every SLA we had, but I had also discovered that you better be able to back up your threats.

Well, I knew we could back it up. I hired a great team and we discussed the option before I had the second Come to Jesus Meeting. They had my back. They were dealing with these issues for so long anyway and were itching to get everything under control in our data center. So the “partner” took me up on it.

They said I had 45 days to relocate five racks of servers, buy my own SAN, install the applications and leave the data center or else they would charge $50,000 per day for every day we were over the 45-day deadline. They never thought we would be able to pull it off, but 39 days later, we were live. Control books in place, data transferred, applications tested and up and running. I certainly tried to play up the David vs. Goliath imagery, but I found I didn’t need to.

In summary, the Come to Jesus Meeting is a tool that can be used effectively if done right, but when you play the hole card, you better be able to back it up.