Solving problems for customers builds enduring relationships
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My entrepreneurial journey began by selling Coca-Cola at university football games when I was 13 years old. Little did I know that this humble but lucrative start would shape the philosophy driving my business decisions today.
Picture a vast, 53,000-seat stadium, where most drink sellers flock to the premium seats housing the affluent alumni. My attention was drawn, however, to the Virginia Tech university students occupying the distant, uppermost rows, far from the limelight and under the scorching afternoon sun. These students, relegated to cheap seats, queued endlessly at ground-level concession stands, struggling to carry drinks up hundreds of steps to their seats where flasks of bourbon awaited. Recognising their problems, I carried my over-the-shoulder racks holding 24 ice-cold Cokes up to their seats. The result? Not only extraordinary tips, but also a profound lesson in service.
- The heart of enduring customer relationships lies not just in selling a product or service but in solving problems. For small and medium enterprises, where agility and personalisation are paramount, adopting a problem-solving mindset is more than a strategy, it should be a guiding philosophy.
Since acquiring Ground Control 20 years ago, we have tried to embrace this thinking by providing new services that our clients need. Early on, while growing our client base for traditional grounds maintenance services, our largest customer asked for our help in gritting and snow clearance nationally. Along with helping a client, we did not want to allow a competitor to come in though the back door. With a short period in which to act, we procured salt and pedestrian spreaders for our teams and quickly patched together a supply chain to deliver this work.
Feeling confident after skating through our first few winters serving one large client, we stepped up marketing this service to new clients. Unexpectedly, we won contracts for several thousand sites to coincide with the coldest December since 1890. Weeks of heavy snow closed schools and severely disrupted travel throughout the UK in 2010. Our nascent systems and people buckled under the relentless pressure. We let customers down. We learnt the hard way that solutions need exploration, customisation, investment and many iterations. Investing heavily for any future “worst-case scenario”, crafting solutions around individual client requirements and creating tiers of contingency systems, our winter maintenance is one of largest business lines today.
A fascinating example of a business founded solely to solve a customer problem is School Space, a social enterprise I support. Jemma and James were 17-year-old students when they saw the impact that budget pressures were having on their school. After fundraising through PTA events and quiz nights, the pair realised that there was a market in renting out the school’s facilities. They formed a business that allowed them to raise much-needed revenues for the school, while covering their costs of running operations. Imagine Airbnb catering to community groups and clubs for sports pitches, auditoriums, gyms and classrooms on evenings, weekends and holidays.
These young entrepreneurs did not set out to start a business but only to solve a problem that their school was facing. After initial success they started to expand across Oxfordshire, splitting revenue with participating schools and profitably growing. Ten years later School Space has expanded dramatically, returned more than £5 million in much-needed funding to participating schools and supporting community groups while building a thriving business. Their original mindset helped to shape their behaviour and decisions and gave them a “map” for growth. They look to improve what they do all the time, whether that is in the way they recruit or how they encourage their team to use their initiative. Problems, and their solutions, are discussed in an open way; the successes celebrated and shared across their portfolio of member schools.
Customer relationship challenges do not just occur in delivery; they can be caused by what is happening in the wider economy. Back during the 2008 economic crunch we proposed creating areas for “nature conservation” in non-critical areas of our clients’ property portfolios by ceasing maintenance to cut costs. Although this hit our revenue it simultaneously reduced our costs and strengthened our relationships. More importantly, it planted the early seeds for a more nature-conscious approach to commercial property management.
You can also anticipate problems and try to prevent them. For years we have tried to design out future maintenance problems, create planting schemes to help to alleviate flooding and devise strategies for nature conservation. Our landscape architects specialise in designs using hearty, low-maintenance, cost-effective planting, which makes our work easier and faster.
Just as I found in that stadium selling Coca-Cola, if you shift your thinking from simple transactions to problem-solving you can end up with a much more valuable enterprise. That could be a small social enterprise, such as School Space, or a large commercial venture, like Ground Control.