Bad Customer Service always Hertz


It’s impossible to start anywhere other than the Ryanair check-in desk this week. The lonely and deserted Ryanair check-in desk after one of the more spectacular own goals in corporate history. What is it about the airline industry? Last year United, this year Ryanair.

Michael O’Leary was swift to go on TV and offer profuse apologies. Flights cancelled for up to six weeks: up to 400,000 passengers with their flights cancelled and/or their holiday plans in ruins. But how do Ryanair still manage to give off that air of ‘sorry-not-sorry?’ There’s just the distinct impression of the kid at school – the one who’s apologising with his fingers crossed behind his back.

So Ryanair have thrown a large rock into their corporate pool. I suspect that they have done lasting and public damage to their reputation. And they have done it spectacularly.

But this week I want to talk about what I think was equally bad customer service. It wasn’t spectacular, it certainly won’t be reported in the media and, if Ryanair threw a rock, this was barely a pebble.

But there’s a ripple. And I hope that when you’ve read the blog this week the ripple may be on its way to being a wave. Here’s an abridged version of the story: if you want the full version, just let me know.

In the summer we went to Portugal for a week with another family. The events I’ve related below happened to both Ben and myself: a double whammy.

I’m a Hertz Gold Club member and I booked a car with them in advance – something around the size of an Astra, at £400 for the week.

When I arrived there was no Astra and instead I was offered a Clio Grande. I wondered if that was big enough for two large suitcases. “No problem,” the very helpful guy on the desk said, “You can upgrade to a BMW X3. Normally that would be £150, but you’re a Gold Member so I can do it for £80.”

That seemed fair enough. And we were anxious to start our holiday: I fumbled for my card. “No problem,” he said. “We don’t need your card. Just initial here … and here.”

And I was done – and, at that point, quite happy with the service I’d received from Hertz.

Fast forward a week. Time to hand the car back.

…At which point I find out that the £80 extra was per day. Was that mentioned initially? Not in a thousand years. Hertz presented the extra £80 as a one-off increase on the £400 I’d already paid.

You can imagine the scene. You can imagine the arguments Ben and I had with Hertz. You can also imagine the time I have wasted on this.

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At the time of writing it is still ‘in dispute.’ Hertz have so far refused to take any action: that includes failing to reply to my e-mail of August 20th despite – see the image – telling me that I should ‘stand by’ for a response on four separate occasions. Yep, I’m ‘standing by’ waiting for a response in much the same way as 400,000 Ryanair passengers are ‘standing by’ waiting for a flight. So here we are, in the rather more transparent world of social media…

Will I ever rent a car from Hertz again? Right now I would rather cycle round Portugal with our suitcases on my back. Will you ever rent a car from Hertz again? You may well do: but you will pause before you sign anything.

This is – by some distance – the worst service I’ve ever received in my life. Hertz still have my £500 (and Ben’s) and the words ‘ripped-off’ and ‘mis-selling’ don’t even come close. Worst of all is that – in the best traditions of United and Ryanair – Hertz don’t seem to care.

They may have been around since 1918, they may be the biggest name in car rental, but nothing excuses their lamentable service and their inability to answer an e-mail. I’ll be sharing this post with them: let’s hope someone at Hertz finally wakes up and takes notice. I’ll let you know…

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David and Goliath? It could be TAB vs. Amazon…


If you saw the news last week you may have seen that there was – very briefly – a change at the top of the league table. Specifically, at the top of the Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Amazon shares rose ahead of their results and for one day – July 27th – Jeff Bezos was the richest person in the world. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the company’s results were disappointing. Despite revenue for the three months to June rising to $38bn (25% up on the same period last year) earnings-per-share were down as the company chased growth. The shares slipped back by 2% and that was enough. Bill Gates was back at number one and poor old Jeff was struggling to get by on $89bn.

But wherever Jeff Bezos is in the rich list, Amazon has become an integral part of all our lives. I’ve touched several times on the decline of the traditional high street: whatever your feelings about that, Amazon has played a central role in it. And the company is chasing yet more growth – $14bn to buy Whole Foods, for example, as it goes head-to-head with Walmart.

Right now Amazon seems to be looking to dominate just about every sector you can think of: quoted in City AM an American fund manager said, “What you’re buying [Amazon shares] for is revenue growth and market share – and Amazon is making great progress.”

And now to another story that caught my attention. ‘Edinburgh’s entrepreneurial eco-system encouraging start-ups.’ Basically it’s a simple story: Edinburgh has brought all the key ingredients together to allow people to start businesses and to encourage those businesses to grow – a talented workforce, public sector and academic support, access to finance, affordable space and quality of life.

For me, the two stories are closely connected. Amazon and the other tech giants are going on a spending spree. That is going to bring benefits: both Amazon and Google are committed to massive new developments in London that will create thousands of jobs. But it will also come at a price, and that price may well be paid by our local shops and communities.

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And yes, I use Amazon. Of course I do. Someone recommends a book, you find it in 10 seconds, click, it’s bought. But I am acutely conscious that if I shop with Amazon the money does not stay in my local community. South Milford does not have a book shop: I’d hate to think that in a few years The Village Store (no, the marketing committee didn’t spend long on the name…) had disappeared because we’d all decided Amazon was the best place to buy Weetabix, dog food and loo rolls.

This is where I think entrepreneurs have a significant role to play. We are firmly rooted in our local communities and I’m really keen to encourage the 400 business owners in the TAB community to play their part in creating ‘entrepreneurial eco-systems’ like the one in Edinburgh. One of the things that TAB members do well is bring people together: not just other TAB members, but people from banking, regional development, education and other sectors. If we can develop that, then we can play our part in building and nurturing successful local economies.

Technology isn’t going away. Any day now you’re going to look up into the sky and watch a delivery from an Amazon drone. And if you think that’s impressive the Chinese version of Amazon claims to deliver in 15 minutes: not even worth nipping out to the shops at lunchtime…

Local businesses and local communities are going to need all the help they can get. I’m proud to know that TAB members will play a central role in providing that help – and no-one is better qualified.

PS Should you need either of these vital items the Chinese Amazon will apparently also deliver a Vietnamese bride and/or a live scorpion. A whole new meaning to ‘something for the weekend…’

Eddie and Jacob: the Unlikely Lads


Every day 300,000 people use Southern Rail: every day, a good proportion of those people are subject to overcrowded trains, delays or cancellations – or all three. Management blames the unions: the unions blame the management and now the owners of Southern Rail have been fined £13.4m – which has only increased the bitterness between the two sides.

But it’s not all doom and gloom at head office: Southern Rail have unwittingly discovered a social media star.

Meet Eddie…

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Eddie – sadly we do not know his second name – is 15 and was at Southern Rail on work experience. The decision was taken to put Eddie in charge of Southern Rail’s Twitter feed, which (as you might guess) is usually a seething hotbed of complaints, abuse and sarcasm. Showing that all the world’s ‘social media consultants’ are grossly overpaid, Eddie wasted no time in introducing himself:

Hi! Eddie here! Here on work experience and ready to answer your questions

Sensing that Eddie may not have the answer to why the 08:32 was delayed, overcrowded or cancelled, Southern Rail’s followers tried a different tack:

Hi Eddie! Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

A tough one: you suspect the traditional occupants of the customer service desk would have struggled. But Eddie was unfazed:

100 duck sized horses. A horse-sized duck would be pretty scary. You? Eddie

That’s a perfect response. In less than 140 characters Eddie answered the question, empathised with the customer and clearly identified himself. And after that he went from strength to strength…

Eddie – would you rather have rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands for the rest of your life?

Rollerblades for feet. I feel like I could get used to them pretty quickly and get places quicker.

Unlike Southern Rail someone darkly responded. But Eddie was on a roll, and by the end of his stint was even dishing out dietary advice.

Chicken fajitas or Thai green curry tonight? @Adam_W48 needed to know.

It has to be chicken fajitas Eddie replied with a wink.

For one day at least Southern Rail had given their customers something to smile about. But Eddie is not alone in being an unlikely star of the new media…

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Let me introduce you to an ever more surprising social media star – Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the MP for the 17th Century as he is frequently known. More correctly, the Eton and Oxford educated Mogg – the Moggster to his fans – is the Conservative MP for North Somerset. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Mogg doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. To many, he is what the New Statesman described as ‘a cartoonish toff.’ To others, he is a future Prime Minister – William Hill will offer you 16/1.

But Mogg also has 35,000 followers on Instagram (twice the number Theresa May has). He is not afraid to speak Latin and holds the record for the longest word ever used in the House of Commons (floccloccinaucinihilipilification – it means the habit of estimating something as worthless.) His sixth child was named Sixtus – the Guardian labelled him a ‘Tory sex machine’ – and he campaigns with his eldest son, both of them dressed in identical double-breasted suits.

You suspect that Eddie and Rees-Mogg could not be more different. But what they share is authenticity, and a willingness to answer a question. As Southern Rail casts around for excuses, as United Airlines tries to justify assaulting one of its own passengers and sundry corporate and government ‘spokesmen’ tell us what we all know is patently untrue, maybe business can learn a lesson from Eddie and the Right Honourable Member for the 17th Century. Customers are fed up with spin: more than ever they value the truth, openness, honesty and a willingness to engage.

If you have a problem, admit it. If you’re going to miss the delivery date, tell them. As the old saying goes, ‘The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. The lie pleases, but it doesn’t heal.’ I’d go further than that: all our businesses are about building long-term relationships. It is a central part of TAB’s message and beliefs.

The truth may hurt in the short-term, but in the long term it can strengthen a relationship. If you tell the truth when it clearly shows you in a bad light then you’re someone who can be trusted. Lies – or spin – may please in the short-term: you cannot build a long-term business on them.

…And I clearly cannot build a long term business as a sports psychologist. Time to eat humble pie: or humilem massae manducare as JRM would put it. You may have noticed a slightly triumphalist tone in the blog last week. A few words of advice for Joe Root, he scores 190 and England win the first test by 211 runs. Sadly, a week is a long time in the sports psychology business. The last time I checked (from behind the sofa) Joe Root’s off stump was lying flat on the ground and England were sliding to a massive 340 run defeat. No wonder the MCC didn’t pay my invoice…

United we Fall


Even if you’ve been living in the proverbial cave at the bottom of the proverbial salt mine the news of United Airlines PR disaster-to-end-all-PR-disasters must have reached you by now.

I’ve covered disaster, catastrophe and the required corporate apology before. But that was something minor – just an oil spill and devastation of a coastline. In PR terms, hauling Dr David Dao up the aisle of the United flight to Kentucky was in an altogether different league.

Why? It’s simple. Devastating a coastline is tragic: of course it’s a disaster. But it’s a news item.

What United did to Dr Dao was personal. There isn’t one of us who – next time he flies – won’t sit in his seat, fasten his safety belt and then glance at the aisle of the aeroplane and think, ‘It could have been me…’

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Was United’s action legal? Sadly, yes. It’s right there in the terms and conditions, in 8pt print at the bottom of page 23. Airlines routinely sell tickets to more people than a plane can seat, counting on several people not to arrive. When there are not enough ‘no-shows’ – that is, when passengers are so inconsiderate that they turn up for the flight they booked – then the airlines first try to persuade, reward or bribe passengers to change their flight. Then…

And the figures are small – almost insignificant. In 2016, United Airlines denied boarding to 3,765 of its 86 million passengers: an additional 62,895 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. In very round figures, that gives you a 1 in 1,000 chance of being ‘bumped,’ voluntarily or involuntarily.

But none of this matters: because we’ll all look at the aisle of the plane and wonder…

Not surprisingly, United took a savage beating on social media: ‘New United Airlines Mottos’ rapidly became one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags…

We put the hospital in hospitality!

Fight or flight

If you can’t seat ’em, beat ’em

…And several others which have no place in a family blog on a Friday morning.

The stock market was equally quick to react with more than $1 billion wiped off United’s stock market valuation.

United’s response to all this was ‘apology by committee.’ You could see the eventual statement had gone round the company several times, with every department head making sure his own base was covered. CEO Oscar Munoz even tried to deflect the blame on to David Dao, saying that he had been “disruptive and belligerent.”

What would I have done? Four things:

  • Have one person immediately issue a genuine and sincere apology to Dr Dao and the other passengers on the flight, without worrying about any hurt feelings at United HQ
  • Settle Dr Dao’s lawsuit immediately, whatever the cost. United cannot have people constantly reminded of this incident
  • Sack the security team, sack the CEO and sack anyone else who didn’t have the courage and the common sense to say, “Stop. This is wrong.”
  • Announce an immediate end to the overbooking of flights. United – and all other airlines come to that – need to give an absolute guarantee that you cannot pay for a flight and then be ‘bounced.’

But all those moves are simply locking the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. What they needed – what every company needs – is a culture where incidents like that simply cannot occur in the first place. No-one can legislate for one individual’s erratic behaviour, but in United’s debacle everyone screwed up – and it was indicative of a deeper malaise at the company.

Thankfully as I meet more and more Alternative Board members up and down the UK I see the same commitment to clients and customers, and the same determination to build and empower great teams, that was so evident in York. Dr Dao would be safe with any member of the Alternative Board. (United’s HQ is in Chicago: maybe it’s not too late for Oscar Munoz to sign up…)

That’s it for this week – and yes, before you ask, I have noticed that there’s going to be a General Election. I’ll tackle it next week…

Why is Starbucks so Successful?


Last week the blog made a simple claim – you don’t need to be outstanding to be successful – and I used the Howard Schultz/Starbucks story for much of the background.

So is Starbucks outstanding? If you use coffee as your yardstick, then the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I doubt that more than five people reading this blog would name Starbucks as their favourite place to grab a coffee. Give me thirty seconds and I can list half a dozen places where the coffee/cake/ambience/service – or all four – are better.

But those half dozen places are all one-offs. They’re successful – but on a small scale. There are not 23,043 of them around the world, up from 21,366 last year and 19,767 in 2014. In 2015 842 of those Starbucks outlets were in the UK, split more or less evenly between company-operated and licenced stores. Revenue and profits continue to grow strongly.

By any standards, that’s a success story. If ever there was a company that knew where it was going and paid attention to its KPIs, it’s Starbucks. Remember, we’re not taking about apps, iPhones or technology here: we’re talking about cups of coffee.

But why is Starbucks so successful? Ask Google and the search engine returns 12.4m results, so I’m not the first person to wonder.

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…And there are plenty of articles as well, many of them extolling exemplary qualities. Start small, expand carefully. Leadership, be efficient, training… But those are simply good management in any business. Based on my own career – hundreds of meetings in hundreds of coffee shops – here are three Starbucks qualities that really stand out for me.

Remorseless attention to detail. Howard Schultz is famous for this – and if you want to read a case-study in getting the little things right, read this book by journalist Taylor Clark. Let me pick up on just one example: the tables are round. Why?

So that if you’re on your own, you don’t feel awkward. Someone has to arrive first for the meeting – and even a 1:1 needs a table for four. But sitting at a rectangular table with three empty chairs feels downright awkward. You can’t put your finger on why you didn’t have the meeting in the other coffee shop; Starbucks just felt more comfortable.

This attention to detail extends to the pictures, the length of the counter, the height of the window seats. If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then there’s a lot of genius in the layout of a Starbucks.

Secondly, consider the cups: short, tall, grande, venti and trenta. Starbucks doesn’t do regular, it doesn’t do medium. Supposedly three out of the five cup sizes are in a foreign language to cater to the ‘collegiate’ needs of Starbucks’ clientele. Howard Shultz wanted to foster a feeling of belonging, of exclusivity. He wanted Starbucks to be an experience, in the same way that Disney was an experience.

Lastly, Starbucks innovates. Use of first names when you’re ordering your coffee; among the first to adopt mobile payments and Starbucks has worked with PayPal to create its own mobile payment app.

So small wonder that there are more than 23,000 outlets around the world: the coffee may not be better in Starbucks, but the relentless attention to detail, appreciation of their customers and willingness to innovate has produced one of the world’s best known and most valuable brands, with a market capitalisation of $85bn.

If it works for Starbucks, it can work for you: damn it, all they do is sell coffee and cake…

You Don’t Need to be Outstanding


…Or ground-breaking. Or develop a wonder-drug. Or an app that no-one’s ever dreamed of before.

If you want to be successful in business, you don’t need to do any of those things.

You just need to be 10% better than your competitors.

And now let’s travel back in time. The year is 1985. The place is Seattle. A husband and wife are having a conversation…

Wife: This is madness. I’m pregnant with our first child and you want to throw in a good job and start a business based on a trip to Italy!

Husband: Yes

Wife: And how much do you need?

Husband: $400,000

Wife: Do we have $400,000?

Husband: You know we don’t

Wife: So you’re going to borrow the money. You’re going to risk everything – including the future of our child – because you want to open a coffee shop. Like the world needs another coffee shop. For God’s sake, Howard, you have a good job with Starbucks…

If you haven’t guessed, the husband was Howard Schultz – then just about to sink $400,000 of borrowed money into Il Giornale, a coffee shop based on a trip to Italy – where they sold excellent expressos, where coffee shops acted as meeting places and where there were 200,000 of them. Two years later the original Starbucks management decided to focus on Peet’s Coffee and Tea and sold its Starbucks retail units to Schultz and Il Giornale for $3.8m. The rest, as they say…

But in many ways, Mrs Schultz was right. The world didn’t need another coffee shop.

The world didn’t need another operating system either. Windows? IBM, Atari – about half a dozen companies already had operating systems.

Neither did it need another social network. It already had Friendster and My Space.

And with seven search engines already operating, the world most certainly didn’t need Google…

But Howard Schultz – along with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – knew he could do it better.

And that’s true of 99% of the business successes I’ve seen. For every one ‘why has nobody thought of that before’ idea, there are 99 businesses that have succeeded by simply doing it better.

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Unless you’re a creative genius, the very-high-chances are that the business idea you’ve just had has already been thought of. In fact, as soon as you’ve had the idea you’ll find that everyone is doing it.

That is not the time to be discouraged. Exactly the opposite: all you’ve done is proved that there’s a demand for your idea. Now, you simply need to go out there and consistently deliver a better product or service.

Starbucks isn’t significantly better than its rivals. But – as I’ll describe next week – the remorseless attention to detail that Howard Schultz ingrained in the company’s DNA means it is that crucial 10% better in several key areas.

Let me finish by returning to that conversation between Mr and Mrs Schultz. The numbers and the business may be different, but I’ll wager heavily that a lot of people reading this blog had exactly that conversation.

And no – the world didn’t need your business. But like Howard Schultz, you had the drive and the vision to believe that you could be 10% better: the 10% that makes all the difference.

The world didn’t need another peer-to-peer business coaching company either. After all, anyone can get together with a few friends and create a mastermind group. Just make sure the group is a good fit, commit to meeting each month, find someone to coach you and you’re away…

Except it’s not quite that easy.

Like Starbucks, Google and Facebook, I absolutely believe TAB does it that crucial 10% better. It’s what makes our business model so successful – and if you’re not a member of TAB York, it’s what could add the vital 10% that would make all the difference to your business.

Lessons I Learned from my First Job


That’s that then. Whit’s over, the kids are safely back at school.

For a few weeks. And then the long summer holiday stretches in front of us.

Maybe it’s time to send your offspring out to work…

Dan, my eldest son, has just turned 14: I’ve been thinking about his first job for a while – ever since I was at York races in May.

I always like going to the races – especially in May. And yes, I know real men go to Wetherby in February, but May meetings hold a special place in my heart.

They remind me of my first job. That was at Chester races – and the Roodee is synonymous with May.

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Aged 18 I was a bar porter. Nattily dressed in a green boiler suit my job description was simple: skivvy for anyone and everyone. The general perception was that I wouldn’t be up to it – “talks too posh” was one of the politer comments – but I must have shown some promise as I was ‘promoted’ to the Grand National meeting the following year. And it was a great first job: it taught me about real life, it taught me that you’ll sometimes need to prove people wrong – and gave an early boost to my cash flow. Being there first thing in the morning and hearing all the gossip from the stable lads was invaluable!

So what, I wondered, did other members of TAB York learn from their first job?

Here’s Suzanne Burnett of Castle Employment, someone else who learned valuable lessons in the catering industry:

My first job – aged 15 – was at the Tramway Café in Scarborough. I helped to make the food and clear the tables. It was my first time working with older people who weren’t teachers, relatives or friends of my parents. And it taught me I could make friends with people outside my own age bracket and from different backgrounds. I also learned that not everyone has the same work – or life – ethic. I learned that customers aren’t always right but they’re still customers – and I learned that money gives you independence and freedom. I also learned that I was strong-willed and didn’t necessarily like to conform: I wonder if that was the start of my entrepreneurial spirit…

But not everyone had their first taste of the workplace serving up a full English…

Richard Shaw of Ellis Patents had just turned down a place at Nottingham University:

I had no idea what to do. Eventually my father insisted I did something productive and I went to work in the flattening press department of our family business. It was a dirty, noisy and dangerous place to work – and I remember buying a new pair of overalls every fortnight! I was there for a year and it changed my life. The works manager saw my aptitude for engineering and – despite my initial protests – I ended up on an engineering course at Leeds Poly. The main thing I learned about was stress. At the beginning of each month I was given a ‘panic list:’ orders that simply had to be out by the last Friday. And in the last week of the month I was given the ‘panic, panic list.’ I learned – and I’ve never forgotten – that controlling the workflow is crucial to the success of any business.

Finally, we’re ‘back of house’ again. Chris Wilson of Tailor Made Sales started his working life in a Beefeater Steak House.

It gave me a ‘taste’ for the hospitality industry, seeing the stresses of a busy Saturday night service. I was washing up: being prepared for the onslaught of dirty crockery was an important lesson. Above all, it taught me how quickly your own service can impact on how others will treat you. Make a cracking cup of tea for the chef and you got pans that weren’t burned and even the odd well-cooked sirloin. Include the waitresses in your brew-up and they’d scrape the plates clean before they got to me – and maybe even give me a share of their tips.

Three different people, three different jobs – but in many ways, very similar lessons. Being prepared, seeing things from other people’s perspective, working with a team and – as Suzanne suggests – the beginning of that feeling we all know. I want to be the one in control…

Don’t discourage your children when they come to you and say they want a part-time job. Don’t worry that it’ll impact adversely on their school work. It’s part of them growing up and it’s part of you letting go. And it may just be a key part of their eventual success…

Business Lessons in a Bacon Sandwich


For the sake of my host the hotel shall remain nameless. As will the ‘event.’

But it took place early in the morning, which meant that a bacon sandwich was an integral part of the proceedings.

Or maybe not…

A particularly un-riveting presentation finished. I marched towards the food, seeking some consolation.

I’m a reasonable chap: I’m not one of these people who insist his bacon has a precisely calibrated degree of crispiness. But, nameless hotel chef, I do like it to be cooked. Not sliced from the pig’s back and dangled somewhere near a source of heat for a few seconds.

No. I’m sorry. I simply couldn’t eat that. So sausage sandwich it was. After all, you can’t ruin a sausage sandwich – even if the bread did have that mass-produced-and-probably-yesterday’s look.

Nope, you can’t ruin a sausage sandwich. But this wasn’t a sausage. It was lukewarm cardboard in a plastic skin.

So where was this ‘event’ held? As above, it has to remain nameless. But it wasn’t Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop and Breakfast Bar. It was a hotel: part of a chain and one that frequently caters for functions.

Let’s be charitable: it was early in the morning, it may not have been the head chef at work.

But damn it, a bacon sandwich is as basic as it gets. Anyone can make a good bacon sandwich. It’s simple (he said, triggering the most heated debate the blog has seen…)

  • Bacon from the local butcher – grilled in my view
  • Bread from the local baker – buttered if you insist, and thick enough for the…
  • Tomatoes – in a perfect world grilled and from your own garden. Failing that, plum tomatoes, which means Napolina, not Tesco’s

The point I’m making is this: a bacon or sausage sandwich is a ridiculously simple thing to get right. I can do it: you can do it. But if a hotel can’t do it, I have no confidence that it can do anything. Could I ever recommend that hotel to friends or business colleagues staying in the area? Not in a million years.

And that’s an essential message for all of us…

…Because sometimes we’re all in danger of forgetting the basics.

Yes, the numbers look good; yes, we’re well on with plans for 2016; and yes, we’ve just booked two of the team on that leadership development programme. Awesome, all guns blazing and mutual congratulations all round.

But there’s a list of calls you need to return. And did you thank Geoff for that referral he gave you? Or apologise to Fiona for being late to the meeting?

They’re things you’d never have done when you started the business…

We’re all guilty of letting little things slip. If you like, of concentrating on Saturday’s wedding and forgetting Friday morning’s bacon sandwiches. But the man eating the lukewarm cardboard has a daughter who’ll get married one day: and he knows one hotel that won’t be quoting for the reception.

For me, there are three things that are the ‘bacon sandwiches’ of my business. In truth, they’ve got nothing to do with business: they’re basic good manners. But for me they’re part of making sure I’m in control – and if I’m in control, I’ll get the big things right as well.

  • First of all, I say ‘thank you.’ It takes no time to write a quick thank you note and yet so few people do it. Without question a genuine ‘thank you’ note is the best marketing any business can do.
  • I stay in touch. Everyone in any form of sales business will tell you of the client/customer they lost touch with or wrote off as hopeless. Suddenly they’re your competitor’s top client. Stay in touch and catch up over coffee: it is so easy, and it consistently pays dividends.
  • And, as Louis XVIII taught us, ‘punctuality is the courtesy of kings.’ I simply do not know any successful person who is consistently late. I know plenty who are consistently five or ten minutes early to the point of OCD. So I pride myself on being on time: nope, it’s not always the easiest thing in North Yorkshire, especially at harvest time, but like the other two, it’s an integral part of my business – and who I am.

With that, have a great weekend – and now let battle commence. I’ll await the flood of angry e-mails from the brown sauce brigade…

Peanuts, Monkeys and Frozen Custard


Let’s consider one of the major global economic indices. Not the FT-SE 100, the Dow Jones or the Chinese Purchasing Managers’ Index: let’s consider sales of McDonald’s burgers.

2014 was a disastrous year for McDonald’s: it was dogged by scandals and sales fell around the world. “The best thing about 2014 for McDonald’s is that it’s over,” said entrepreneur.com. But worse was to follow with the Wall Street Journal reporting that same-store sales were down 4% in February.

Meanwhile, consider Shake Shack. You may not have heard of Shake Shack. You will. It’s just had a ridiculously successful debut on Wall Street, valuing the chain of 63 outlets at over $1bn and raising more than $100m for future expansion. Two things struck me as I was reading about Shake Shack: first of all customers spend significantly more than the industry average and secondly, they’re committed to paying wages which are also well above the industry average. Could the two be related? Of course they could.

If you look at chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s in the US the emphasis is on speed and price. The average meal may cost as little as $5, with virtually all the food prepared off-site: workers then ‘assemble the ingredients.’ Recently this sector has been losing out – as McDonald’s sales testify – to the ‘fast casual’ chains, where the emphasis is on fresher food that is prepared on site: quality and sustainability are far more important than price.

This changed emphasis is crucial to the ‘millennials’ – the 80m strong consumer base that every marketer is desperate to reach. The change in emphasis also means that higher quality staff are required – and hence the higher wages paid by Shake Shack and another operation you’re going to hear about, the splendidly named Moo Cluck Moo.

Paying higher wages “is the right thing to do,” according to Bryan Parker, co-founder of Moo Cluck Moo. “It empowers our people, we don’t have to babysit our staff and we have low turnover as a result.”

Is there a lesson for us in this? Emphatically, yes.

You’re building your business. You can’t do it all alone – so you need to build a great team. And we’ve all been there. It is hugely tempting to look at the cost of wages at the end of every month and think you could save some money. Increasingly, I think that mindset will be positively damaging to your business.

If there’s one absolute fact I see as I deal with the members of TAB York and other clients it’s this: talented people are becoming increasingly hard to find. If you’ve got one – or better yet, if you have a team of them – then you need to do all you can to keep them, develop them and motivate them. And skimping on wages doesn’t achieve any of those three.

Bear something else in mind: talented people are not only hard to find, they’re expensive to replace. What’s it cost to recruit, train and ‘bed in’ a new person? My rough rule of thumb in industry used to be a year’s salary. And if you’re the owner of an SME the cost of your time may push it even higher than that.

Nope. Good, talented, hard-working and loyal staff are priceless. If you’re going to reach your goals, they’re the people that will be with you on the journey. Being afraid – or unwilling – to pay them what they’re worth is the falsest of false economies.

52% of fast food workers in the US earn wages that are below the poverty line. Shake Shack pays its staff in New York a starting salary of $10 an hour: a 25% increase on the State minimum wage. “We believe this enables us to attract a higher calibre employee and this translates directly to a better guest service,” the firm said when it floated. It translates to a better bottom line as well. It’s a lesson you can’t ignore.

…And I won’t be ignoring Shake Shack next time I’m in the States. A Smoke Shack burger, fries, Shackmeister beer – and obviously, frozen custard to finish it off!

Always Deliver what your Brand Promises


Richard Branson may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but you can’t deny that he’s been successful. Employing 60,000 people doesn’t happen by accident.

Neither does building one of the most recognisable brands on the planet. From a record business started in the crypt of a church Virgin now ranks right up there with Coca Cola, Red Bull and McDonald’s

Whatever the size of your business – one man band or multi-national – we’ve all got a brand. And it very quickly will become one of your most important business assets. (If you’d like a short, almost ‘Dummies,’ guide to branding this article is useful.)

So what is your brand? Based on all the companies I’ve worked with and for I’d define it this way:

Your brand is a consistent set of values, standards, qualities and experiences that you deliver every time you’re in contact with a client or customer.

The key word I’d pick out is ‘consistent.’ A brand isn’t something you turn on and off: the customer needs to know what to expect and have it consistently delivered every time they interact with your business. You may not like McDonald’s – but you have to agree they deliver a consistent product and experience.

Back to Sir Richard, and I was reading an article in the Guardian that inspired this post. ‘Never do anything that discredits your brand’ was the headline.

I couldn’t agree more. Your brand is exactly like trust: it takes a lifetime to build and you can destroy it – or do it serious damage – in a few seconds. Want evidence? The absolute avalanche of negative publicity DHL have managed to accrue with their ridiculous ‘like our Facebook page so you can send a get well message to Jules Bianchi.’

One of my favourite quotes about branding is from Jeff Bezos of Amazon: Your brand is formed primarily, not by what your company says about itself, but by what your company does. Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

DHL made a serious, tasteless mistake. A quick visit to Twitter will be telling their senior executives exactly what people are saying about them when they’re not in the room. FedEx must be rubbing their hands together. But as Richard Branson points out in the article, having a brand doesn’t mean you can’t take risks and make mistakes.

People in the UK love a trier – we’ve a long tradition of supporting the underdog and so much of the Virgin story is based around that: the small company trying to give the better service the big boys are denying you.

So yes, you can take a risk with your brand. But it’s like life: it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it. If you do make a mistake – if you’re trying to cross the Atlantic and you sink 100 miles offshore – be open about it. Pick yourself up and go again. As Branson says, “If we’d succeeded the first time, people might have said ‘so what?’”

In many ways a bigger challenge for the owner of an SME is getting your team to buy into your brand. How do you get them – as we said at Guinness – to ‘bleed black?’ You won’t be surprised to hear that communication is the key, and I’ll look at that in a future post. Just as everyone is part of the marketing department, so everyone is part of the brand.

I’ll finish with the one more key message on branding: as Jeff Bezos put it, on your brand being what your company does.

Amazon has had its fair share of negative publicity lately, but I continue to buy books and a lot of other things from them. Why? Because they always deliver. It’s why my wife buys clothes from Next. Because if you order on Tuesday, they’re there on Wednesday. Consistently and remorselessly – and when a company delivers like that, it’s almost impossible to go somewhere else.