Part 4: How to give great service without paying for it
2007-05-17 15:45:40 -

Founder of O’Briens Sandwich Bars, BRODY SWEENEY, continues his series on how to cope with the stresses and strains of starting a new enterprise 

Keep the number of people you manage directly at a reasonable level
For me, as I was attempting to grow our business, I realised that I was incapable of having a really good working relationship with more than about 25 people. 

This meant that, as the company grew beyond 25 employees, I would either have to suffer a loss in the quality of my relationships with my colleagues or to delegate some of the people management aspects of my job. 

I went down the delegation route. As soon as I was able to do so, I asked my co-director Fiacra Nagle to take over responsibility for about half the people I had previously had working under me, and for him to develop with them the sort of relationship I had tried to maintain. 

He did this – which left me with a lot fewer than 25 people to look after, and the space to build up the number again in the future.

Enquire about personal issues
Given the number of people with whom you will be trying to keep a close relationship, it pays to be interested in their life outside the business environment.

For many years in the early days of O’Briens, I had a young girl working with me called Mary Devine (not her real name). Mary, who was 16 and had dropped out of the education system, was very bright and hard-working. Over the years, I have become very fond of some staff that I have worked with; Mary was one of those people. 

I delighted in the fact that she broke all the stereotypes associated with a girl from her background. She came from a part of Dublin which at the time had 40 per cent unemployment. It wasn’t the green fields and private schools of south Co Dublin where she was reared. Her father was unemployed, and the family was poor. Despite that, she was driven to get on, and did so, while becoming very loyal to me personally. She was one of the few people in the business I trusted absolutely.

Mary rapidly became a supervisor and then, at the age of just 17, a store manager in one of our busy downtown stores, where she managed a mixed crew of staff, mostly very well. 

Unfortunately, Mary had a scumbag boyfriend, and I was saddened to see her promising career falter when, still aged only 17, she came to tell me she was pregnant. She worked on for as long as she could, and shortly thereafter gave birth to a baby boy, James (again, not his real name). Despite the fact that she was happy to be a mother, her relationship with her boyfriend wasn’t going well, and he was violent towards her. She was also living at home and didn’t get on too well with her father. James turned out to be hyperactive, and she found it very difficult to cope with things.

When James was about six months old, she moved out of her parents’ home and moved in with her boyfriend. As soon as she could arrange for her mother to help out with minding the baby, she came back to O’Briens to work part-time. Mary, I knew, found sanity and order in work where there was none in her private life; in that sense work was her escape from her own reality and the mess she was in.

One morning, I received a call from one of our staff to say that there was no one to let them in to work. Because some of the stores had been open consistently late recently, and we had had a staff meeting about the issue, I was livid. It happened to be Mary’s store, and unfortunately, I was beyond reason. I went down to open the store myself, and when Mary turned up at 10am, two-and-a-half hours late and without having phoned to explain herself, I let her have it. I was in no mood for excuses.

She burst into tears. It turned out that her boyfriend had beaten her up the night before. She had had to leave her flat, with the baby, after midnight and try to get into a women’s refuge.
The first one she tried was full, and they sent her, in her nightclothes, in a taxi to a second one where they took her in. She had been so upset that they had given her a sedative to calm her down, and she had overslept. When she awoke, she had to go back to her flat to get some clothes and the baby’s things.

As soon as I heard this, I felt awful. Here I was reading her the riot act, when she had just been through the most dreadful experience. It taught me that you never really know what’s going on in someone’s private life. I have taken it onboard as one of life’s lessons.

One common theme here is that a lot of ideas for improving the customer service in your business don’t have to cost money. In fact, most of them cost nothing at all to implement.

Next week: Get a life – Keeping perspective in your business and personal lives

 - Taken from Making Bread – The Real Way To Start Up and Stay Up in Business by Brody Sweeney, published by Liberties Press – buy at and get a 10 per cent discount
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