I recently interviewed the president of a fast-growing chain of copy shops, and he said something interesting. As his company has gone increasingly high-tech, he attributes his company’s growth to something surprisingly low-tech—basic customer service.
He didn’t mean providing a good quality product, on time, at the best price. That’s a given. He meant how customer service used to be practiced in the days before technology took over. He meant, as president of the company, returning calls in person. Picking up the phone and calling clients for no purpose other than to ask how they’re doing. He meant investing in customer projects himself.
More than half his time, this executive says, is spent working directly with customers. “We started in 2000, before the Twin Towers came down,” he recalls. “Over half of the businesses that were open then aren’t in business anymore. But we listen—at least, I think we do; I spend more than half my time directly talking to customers or working on projects related to customers—and our business has doubled in size since then.”
He learned the skill of listening from Kinko’s, he said, back when he was in college. “Back then, nobody was more service-oriented than they were,” he recalls. “The culture changed after the investors left. Kinko’s abandoned that culture, but I kept it.”
As a company owner or top executive, can you imagine spending more than half of your time talking to or working with customers? That’s a lot. But his company’s growth shows the value of doing it. It makes me wonder: have the rest of us become so busy that we have forgotten how to sit still and listen? What would happen if we did? What might we learn? What might we discover that benefits our business in ways that we wouldn’t have discovered if we hadn’t?
I also recently spoke to another top executive who goes into the office on Saturdays and just sits at his desk, quietly, with an empty Word document open on his laptop or a yellow scratch pad on his desk. He just sits there, with no distractions, and brainstorms. It is from these times that most of his most profitable business ventures are birthed. His company, too, is growing rapidly while his competitors are stagnant or going out of business.
There is another executive I spoke to recently, a female CEO, who takes the time to sit with her employees in monthly mentoring sessions. They learn from her, but just as importantly, she learns from them. Notably, she doesn’t delegate this opportunity to someone else. She does it herself. By doing so, she learns from her employees’ own mouths what motivates them, what inspires them, and ultimately, something that is critical to the survival of her printing business (and any printing business these days), how to make her workplace one that younger people want to work in.
When was the last time you took time out of your schedule just to sit quietly and think, or to listen intently and patiently to those around you? What did you learn?