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