Sam Barbee

Going the extra mile…or why the little things in life really do matter

Extra Mile - Palm Springs style!

Extra Mile – Palm Springs style!

Do you remember this poem from your schooldays?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

I was fascinated by this story as a child and it’s a theme I often return to when I think about startups or small businesses. As an aside, the idea of a small issue leading on to something much bigger lends itself to many aspects of life outside business too – but more about that later.

In my mind, there are two ways that smart small businesses elevate themselves above basic bog-standard delivery and every new business struggles with either or both. Those organisations that can get these two things right effortlessly, consistently & with grace are the ones most likely to succeed.

The first part is about making sure that nothing important gets dropped. I know there’s a saying in startup land – “if the wheels don’t come off, you aren’t going fast enough”. Ignore this sort of silly “bro” culture nonsense when you’re starting your business – startup chaos is never fun from a customer perspective. If you can get efficient delivery right with some consistency in the early days as you expand beyond your founder team and early doors customers then you have a chance. It’s always very difficult to instil your founding team’s customer service ethic into your employee team. Fact. You can devise methods of measuring and monitoring customer service standards until the cows come home, but in my view the better way to tackle this when you’re starting out & beginning to expand and grow your team, is to focus on bringing the right people on board in the first place. People who already share your values and have the right mindset.

It’s ok to make a rare exception (maybe someone completely new to the workplace?) but really take care with your early recruits as those first team members are the foundation on which you’ll build out the next layer as you expand and then the layers after that. Never, ever employ someone who in the first 5 minutes of a job interview can’t articulate to you why they really want to work in your business and what specific value they will bring to you. That “better a hole than an xxxhole” statement is very true and one that I wish I’d paid attention to a bit more closely myself on several occasions – because you do really know in your gut whether or not someone is right to bring into your team. It’s all about creating the right sort of culture in that first wave of team members. If you get this wrong you are lost. In the course of my career, the most difficult customer issues I’ve ever had to resolve have been minor situations made worse by lack of communication or people in my own team lying to customers in order to cover their backs.

Also – everyone screws up from time to time. This is ok. The important thing is to learn as a team from mistakes made and to fix things for your customer as quickly and painlessly as possible for them. If you get this bit right, you could find yourself in an even better position with your customer because they’ve seen how you behaved in a time of adversity and they will admire you more if you’ve been honest.

The second part of this blog is more fun – once you’ve figured it out. What does “going the extra mile” actually look like in your particular business? I once heard Doug Richard say “any conversation with a customer is too short” – and he’s absolutely right. Without knowing why your customers buy from you instead of anyone else and which bit of what you provide they value most it’s pointless trying to go any extra miles as you could be wasting your time providing them with something that doesn’t really delight them and may even annoy them. U2’s music for example!

Everyone knows that startups have to over deliver. It’s one of the ways to get your first few precious customers – the ones that will hopefully go on to become ambassadors for you. Subsequently, stories about delivering customer delight and the resulting karma are legendary in entrepreneur circles. Hearing these tales from other entrepreneurs is one of my favourite pastimes and in my anecdote kitbag I have countless stories of huge contracts won on the back of a small act of kindness delivered at some point in the past. One is about a sales guy getting home at night & receiving a call from a school he’d just delivered some computer kit to that day. The teacher called him because he was delivering a presentation the next day & the printer cable he needed was missing. The sales guy didn’t complain, quibble or argue – he simply grabbed a cable from the office, turned the car around & drove the 70 miles back up the road to take it to the teacher with good grace. Years passed and the small computer company had pivoted & grown into something much bigger and different. The teacher changed jobs too and when he was looking for a supplier to provide an airport security system, he went back to that same sales guy.

My own favourite is a Learning Pool story. Sam Barbee & I went to a large and remote unitary local authority to deliver a lengthy sales presentation to a big group of people in a most unsuitable room. It was one of those rooms used for computer training and many of the people were hidden from view behind computer screens. We didn’t know anyone in the group and introductions weren’t made. The council had recently become a unitary authority, swallowing up the district councils in the process. Many of those in the room had been through long drawn out rounds of local government restructuring and were feeling fragile and bruised. Sam & I soldiered on with the presentation. Suddenly a woman at the back got to her feet and announced that in her previous role she’d been a Learning Pool customer in one of the district councils. Without waiting for permission, she launched into a tale about how she’d been working one day as administrator on her Council’s learning environment and had got it into a bit of a muddle. Tired and fed up she went home. Next morning she came into work with a feeling of trepidation, knowing she had to undo yesterday’s mess. She switched her computer on and immediately realised that her Learning Pool account manager had noticed overnight that she’d got herself into a muddle and without waiting to be asked, had gone in & fixed it for her. She finished off by saying that in all her years of working in local government she had never worked with a more customer focused supplier than Learning Pool. It was incredible. Sam & I could have kissed her. The atmosphere in the room changed in a heartbeat and 6 months later, after jumping through all the usual procurement hoops, the contract was ours.

But where do you draw the line? And how do you know what your own extra mile is? This is the tricky bit. As a small company you have to find ways to delight your customers that don’t eat too heavily into your margin – but you can only do that if you know your margins on your various products and services and the dependencies between them. So – know your customers and know what they want from you, know your margins and be aware across your team of where you have a bit of space to give a bit more. Delivering the extra mile doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money but you do need to give this some thought. If you get it right, it will pay you back in spades and you’ll sleep easier at night. A good start is to make a vow never to nickel and dime your customers from Day 1 and to always extend the same high level of courtesy from everyone in your team to everyone you deal with – no matter who they are.

I’d like to hear any of your stories about instances of a small act of kindness in business paying back many fold so please do share in the comments section below.

On a personal note, I keep a loose mental tally on favours I’ve done in business for others and favours I’m owed. I can’t help it – it’s the accountant in me wanting to classify everything in life into debits and credits. Don’t worry – I haven’t started noting it down in a ledger yet. I try to keep it so that I’m in credit with everyone in terms of favours I’ve done for them. I’ve done this all my working life and it’s only ever led to good things happening for me – and it means that when I really need a favour or need someone to pull me out of a hole, there are usually lots of people I can ask.

The night I met Barack Obama…

Sam Barbee & I were in Cardiff getting ready for a Learning Pool customer event the night President Barack Obama was elected.  Sam Barbee is American and I’ve always wished I was – although being Irish is almost the same thing.  It’s certainly closer to being American than any other nationality.  Our Irish diaspora numbers 45m in the USA.  As a child I listened to the stories my great aunts and uncles in Donegal told us about Amerikay – they’d all been to the US many times although they’d never been to Belfast or Dublin & certainly not to the GB mainland.  At the Northern Ireland Bureau St Patrick’s Day breakfast, Martin McGuinness recited a 2 line poem to illustrate our unique relationship with our cousins across the water – I can’t remember it exactly but it was something like this:

Have you been on your holidays yet this year?

No we’ve just been to America again

The morning of our Cardiff breakfast event, we were a bit tired having been up all night following the election results coming in and watching the President’s wonderful acceptance speech.  Neither of us would have missed it for anything. 

It was therefore with great excitement that I received the invite to the President’s St Patrick’s Night party at the White House along with a few others from the Northern Ireland business community (that’s us in the second photo).  The build up to the big day nearly killed me & it was a relief that I only had a week’s notice.  I had to rush out to the shops to buy something green to wear and thank goodness I did or I would have stuck out like a sore thumb (I’ve never seen as much green clothing in my life as I saw in Washington DC on 17 March).  I had an amusing incident at immigration when I was asked the purpose of my visit – the immigration officer asked to see my invite and after studying it for a long time appeared to be most impressed.  From talking to people around Washington DC it seems that the President isn’t much in evidence locally apart from on the tv – although the First Lady has a significant local presence through the many good works she’s involved in.  So what stays with me from the night itself? – the following highlights:

·         Hearing the President and the Vice President speak & being at the front with such a clear view

·         Watching the way the Vice President & the First Lady never took their eyes off the President when he was addressing the crowd

·         Being in the White House for 3 hours and being able to wander round the rooms and freely take photos of the decor, the view from the windows, the paintings and everything else (my full photo set from the evening is at this link

·         The craic in the crowd whilst we were waiting for the President to appear – especially all of us being able to try on the Rose of Tralee’s tiara (thanks Clare!)

·         The mounting excitement waiting for the President – we were almost hyperventilating by the time 7pm came along

·         The pomp & circumstance of the whole evening – the pipe band, the choir, the banquet, the greenness, the beautifully dressed & polite members of the military dotted about everywhere who offered to take photos & were extremely cordial

·         The lovely people that we met who were also there as guests

·         Rather perversely I enjoyed seeing one woman spill her wine on the furniture

·         Glen Hansard of the Frames being joined by Tim Shriver for a rendition of The Auld Triangle

·         Being spontaneously hugged by Michelle Obama when I held my hand out to shake hers – I still can’t believe that – she didn’t hug anyone else and I’m glad she picked me

·         Meeting the President for a few seconds & telling him how glad I am that it’s him that’s there – Jannine’s photo is a bit of a joke but I promise you that’s the President’s nose!!!  You can tell by my face anyway

·         Realising that the President & the First Lady were as good in real life as I imagined they would be

·         Feeling the warmth from our diaspora first hand – doesn’t matter if you’re 4th or 5th generation guys – you’re still ours!

Thanks again to everyone that made this possible – people I knew already (Martin & Stephen & Alastair) & people I hadn’t even met that were so nice and so good to me (Kamala & Grainne).  The Learning Pool team has me down as a people collector but even with Robert Plant in the portfolio, Barack Obama’s a bit of a prize so I may give it up whilst I’m ahead.