“You’re our own folks,” Huston said sadly. *


by cheri block sabraw


We all get busy.

And sometimes, we are so intent on our mission, we forget how sensitive other people can be. A woman who came into my business last week reminded me of this in her one-liner, spoken flatly.

But let me set the scene and the business environment.

Those of us who own small businesses, who deal with the public in person and on the phone, know first hand that this rotten economy has dredged rawness in the eyes and hearts of people who once were light hearted and fun.

We field cold calls from janitorial and insurance services. Resumes from Silicon Valley physicists, biologists, and engineers needing work sputter out of my old fax machine at least once a week.

My business has managed to stay afloat in a bad economy. How? And Why?

First to answer the how:

  • We have worked more creatively in the last year and have spent less money on advertising.  For example, instead of paying my advertising company to design our mini-ad campaign, this year I designed the ads myself. OK. So they have my dog in them and pictures of my student employees, but hey, the price is right. And I can now justify the purchase of my new camera.
  • All of us have agreed to salary cuts because we see the larger picture. We’d rather have a job making less money than not have a job. It’s all pretty simple.
  • We cut the following out of our budget: magazine and newspaper subscriptions, U. S. Postal Service mailings, the cleaning service, and the window washers. Now, I bring in my personal subscriptions to Sunset Magazine, Cooking Light, and The Economist for my clients to read while they  wait for their kids to finish their classes. We set up a chessboard and a Scrabble game to entertain the little ones. My secretary Pat, my student employee Christine, and I do the vacuuming, coffeepot cleaning, and garbage dumping. You get the picture.

Now to answer the why:

  • The instructors who lend their teaching skills to my business feel appreciated, I hope. We laugh, collaborate, teach, and learn ourselves, so our sense of worth and purpose stay lubricated.

  • We are not all about business all the time. What did you do this weekend? Oh,  you are a new aunt. Gee, I am sorry to hear about so-and-so. You look tired. Are you OK? Your child is dressing up as Hillary Clinton for Halloween? That’ll be a kick. The work environment caters to other needs  we humans have: friendship and value.

  • We have lowered our tuition slightly, but still remain a bit more expensive than other competitors. One would think such a practice would do us in; in fact, the opposite has been true:  Because we have distanced ourselves from the pack, and not slashed prices for this or for that, more discriminating customers are coming our way. We let them pay in alternative ways and listen to their requests. When a check bounces, we try to help, not judge.

These bullet points about marketing, salary cuts, tuition rates, and employee morale are relevant, but at the heart of successful business is how we treat people in all layers,  from the customer to the big mucky-muck CEO.

Last week, as I was preparing my lessons, sequestered and full of my thoughts and myself, Christine came into my room, leaving the door open.

Mrs. Sabraw, there’s a lady from Geico Insurance who would like to talk with you.”

The lobby is ten feet from my classroom.

My first reaction was to have Christine tell her I was busy because I was.

Instead, for some reason, I stepped out to deliver that message myself to the brave cold-caller.

Tired eyes and bad teeth greeted me in a worn out casting call. Hair that needed a cut and color contrasted with my recent trim and highlight.

Hi, I’m Cheri Sabraw. Sorry, but we have The Hartford Insurance and are happy with it, so we don’t need any new insurance at this time. But thanks for coming by.

OK, she said, handing me her business card.

As she pushed the glass door to leave, she looked back and said, Thanks for coming out to meet me. And then she left.

I got it. My heart contracted and truly, goose bumps popped.

Christine and I met eyes.

It’s all about dignity, Christine. As in The Grapes of Wrath, remember?

* The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Chapter 24

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Life, People and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to “You’re our own folks,” Huston said sadly. *

  1. Douglas says:

    The incredible shrinking economy. When things get tight, businesses cut back on services, the businesses providing the services either go under or cut back on what they contract for. For instance, janitorial services get less buisiness so they buy less supplies and cut back staff. Their suppliers cut back on inventory purchasing and let off an employee or two. And it all rolls downhill. And, really, it’s all about confidence and expectations.

    • Cheri says:

      You are right. I haven’t cut back on candy. :), so the makers of Tootsie Rolls, Dots, Jolly Ranchers, and all things chocolate, are doing a bang-up business at my place.

      I haven’t cut back on brewing good coffee, so Peet’s is still making money from us.

      And Arrowhead, The Hartford, Office Max, and Ikon Office Systems.

      Since I promised Andreas last year that I was done with the rant as a means of communication, I will also say sotto voce
      my landlord ain’t doing too shabbily herself….

  2. andreaskluth says:

    Incredibly simple, really. Dignity, people, warmth.

    But I’m also guessing–regarding the staying power of your business–that you serve a market segment–parents who are paying for their kids to have writing and literature skills–that is quite inelastic and recession-proof. Right? The parents are probably people who have good jobs or, if they have lost their job, can carry tuition a few rounds on a serverance package.

  3. Cheri says:

    You are right in that during a recession after- school education stays in the ledger long after nails and specialty coffees.

    In our case, we are down in 2009 about 30%. Down but not out.

    As I said above, what has changed is the quality of our clients. Fewer complainers. More insightful people who recognize the quality of what we are doing.

  4. That you could make the connection of the current travails in the working of your school to “The Grapes of Wrath”, shows the value of reading literature.

    I think also of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” as an example of the consciousness-raising value of literature about the world of work.

    • Cheri says:

      You are so right. To this day, I still wonder how many spider legs and flies might be in the frozen baby spinach I buy.

      But have unions gone too far in today’s work environment?

      American literature of the 30’s/40’s probed the plight of the worker, for sure.

    • Cheri says:

      This is a lovely comment, written beautifully.

      I might add that one learns about taxation, leases, contracts, and other unsavory but necessary aspects of private business.

      Those who have always worked for someone else do not truly understand the responsibility.

      • Richard Manchester says:

        A legal idea sometimes mutates perfectly into a letter, a document , a statement or utterance at first attempt without revision, often with improvement, irrespective of complexity. At other times a fair representation takes constant licking into shape.

  5. Brighid says:

    When my children were small I paid for them to go to a private school. The level of education was higher than the public school. Because it was a priority for us, we made it work on a Very tight budget.
    Interesting to me that the parents that Paid to send their kids to a school, often seemed more involved in their childrens education.

  6. Chourou says:

    Hi,Chrei, this is your Yoda from Far East bureau. Long time no see. Actually I’ve been wandering another world beyond time and space on some missions. Good posting this time,too. Well, I’d love if you added my FORCE to your answer the how and why… 😛 Wishing you the best of luck that goes on.

  7. Cheri says:

    Out of the blue you appear, my Yoda!
    I have been remiss in not including your prediction about my business’s recovery…

    The Why:
    In a galaxy, far far away (Japan), there dwells a mysterious sage who identifies himself as Yoda. He presaged our recovery last winter. Every now and then he appears in the form of a blog post. 🙂

    Hope you are doing well, Chourou.

  8. Chourou says:

    Well,some dopes might call me just a mysterious sausage…

  9. Cheri says:

    A mysterious sausage?

  10. Chourou says:

    The one who may not be as wise as a sage, and identifies hmself as being a bit oily and saulty,you know.

    Well, uh, just kidding. forget it!(lol)

    Anyway, I’m happy to chat with you here again.

  11. Foreign Toe says:

    Until I retired five years ago I ran a small local legal practice, and fully identify with your post.

    Despite a limited income, few holidays and endless worry, the illusion of freedom and self-sufficiency is priceless. To be able to balance the equation of income and expenditure honestly is enormously satisfying, and this only by understanding the market-place and the needs for which people are prepared to pay.

    You begin to understand what true money is: the rewards which others are prepared to offer for goods or services in a free market. All the rest is fiction. Endeavour to lace this with compassion and help for those unable to compete and you might just get by.

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