May 22, 2008
Take care of the little things to keep on the road to success
By Rod McDonald

My long-time friend Les Anderson owned and operated Sherwood Greenhouses, east of Regina, for many years. One winter’s day we were enjoying a cup of coffee and a bit of gossip, something most greenhouse people save for the winter months. Our conversation turned to the subject of another operator in the area who was not doing well. Les commented of this struggling operator, “He thinks that if he only changes two or three things, he will be a success. In reality, he needs to improve hundreds of little things to get there.” Little things are those items that set us apart in business, in marriage and in all aspects of our lives. A bouquet of tulips for my wife “just because it’s Wednesday night,” does me more good than ten dozen roses when she is mad at me (not that I give her reasons to feel that way).

Early one morning my wife and I were out for a walk. We stopped into a restaurant for breakfast. As we paid the bill, the cashier was staring off in the distance with absolutely no interest in our presence. She asked, “And how was everything this morning?”

Part of me, the smart ass part, wanted to reply that everything was fine except “when the waitress peed on my cornflakes.” I wanted to say that, to see if I got a response. I doubted I would, because she didn’t care. She was only following a script. Someone told her to always ask the customer how their experience had been, but she didn’t really care. It was a little thing, but I remember the incident, despite it being over five years ago.

When we are in Saskatoon, we always stay at The Ninth Street Bed and Breakfast. The rooms are clean and the location is convenient. What sets this place apart is the legendary hospitality. Our host Darryl serves my wife perfectly poached eggs on whole wheat toast, just the way she likes them. I get an oversized serving of fresh fruit and yogurt to start my day. Darryl has learned over the years that there are many places a traveler can stay overnight in Saskatoon. And, there are even more places that serve breakfast. He has also learned it is the little things that set his place apart. It’s those indefinable qualities that ensure his guests will return, again and again.

Men tend to not see little things

As men, we tend to not see the little things. We think our job is finished because we have unloaded the three trucks sitting at the back gate and we did it quicker than anyone else could have. Unfortunately, 70 per cent of our customers are women. They do not give out awards for how quickly we unload trucks. Women reserve their kudos for those little things, such as displays where everything looks fresh, while the so-so stock is tucked away in the back greenhouse. Females are impressed by engaging signs, clean walks and a smiling staff. They are not impressed with nails popping out of benches, piles of garbage, sick plants in displays and God forgive you if you don’t understand this one: women are disgusted by dirty washrooms!

Guys will put up with dirty washrooms. We might not enjoy a less-than-clean washroom, but we will survive. Women do not share this view. Years ago I read a marketing book that asked this question: “Why do gas stations place the price of their gas to the tenth of a cent in four foot letters, when female drivers would be much more attracted to a station that advertised ‘Cleanest Washrooms in Town’?” Your duty manager or you should be in charge of ensuring your public washrooms are clean. Yes, this issue is that important.

I once ran ads in the spring with headlines that proclaimed, “No Mud!”. Scratch your head if you must, but most of my competitors had lots of gravel and exposed dirt on their properties. I had gone to great lengths to pave all my pathways and to keep my garden centre clean. So I advertised, bragging, “You cannot get muddy at my place…you can shop in your Sunday finest!”

I knew that my advertising was reaching an audience, when I noticed women who worked close to my greenhouse were showing up on their lunch hours in their dresses, pantyhose and heels.

I was in Vancouver one rainy Saturday morning. I visited a garden centre that had a good reputation. I was incognito, just shopping like everyone else that morning. A well-dressed gentleman, wearing a nice pair of slacks and an expensive pair of shoes, was at the till. He was purchasing some soil, peat and mulch. He paid his bill and the student employee acting as a carryout attendant took the man’s cart and followed him to his nice, clean car. I casually followed them out to the parking lot. I was impressed and hoped to watch a great finish. Now, keep in mind it was raining and the bags the man had purchased were a little dirty as well as being wet. The man arrives at his car, opens the trunk and the student-employee says, “When you are done with the cart, please return it to the store.” He then walked back into the store.

Close, but no awards

Oh so close, but no awards! How much more difficult would it have been for the employee to load the product into the car? He should have said, “I don’t want you to get dirty,” put the articles in the car and then taken the cart back to the store. So close…so close…just the little things.

We had a carryout student who really excelled at his job. His performance became our standard for service. Instead of asking a customer if she wanted carryout service, Derek would make a strong statement by saying, “I will carry that to your car for you.” On occasion, a customer would turn down his offer and he would politely but firmly inform the customer, “Escorting you to your car is my job.” The customer would always acquiesce. Again and again, I would receive compliments from my customers on the politeness of our students. Our customers appreciated not needing to ask for assistance. It was always just there…one of those little things.

Missed out

I hired a friend’s father to install a new picture window at my house a few years ago. He did a fine job and I was pleased with the new window. Later my friend asked me how her father had done and if I was pleased with his service. I told her I was pleased with the price, the service and the quality of the work, but that I was a little surprised at the mess he left behind when he was finished. She told me that when she worked for her father at his window installation firm, the only consistent complaint she received was that her dad did not clean up after he was finished. He would get 98 per cent close to a perfect job, but then he missed out on that one little thing that makes customers happy.

I think it was 1984 or 1985, when we had had a busy spring with good sales and the work was long and hard…just like it is every spring. It was a rainy Saturday and not a lot of customers were around. We closed around supper time and I asked my staff to go home, shower and change into some nice outfits as we were going to the finest restaurant in town. Clean, but tired, from the hours we had been logging, we met as a group at this wonderful steakhouse. The place is a class act, with the owner paying attention to details. It is quiet, understated and a perfect place for us to unwind. We had all placed our drink orders and chose our entrees when our waiter arrived. He was marking down our choices on his pad when half-way through this process he looked at us and said, “You’re from the garden centre? I bought two globe cedars from you last year and one has died. What are you going to do about it?”

Intrusion stayed with me

I took the waiter over to one side and ex-plained to him quietly that we had been working very hard and that we had gathered to share a meal and to relax and enjoy ourselves. I told him that I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to bring his gardening concerns to our table, but if he wanted a replacement he should come to the garden centre the next day. The food was excellent, the ambience great, the washrooms clean, but a little thing such as the waiter intruding into our space has stayed with me for over 20 years.

I saw that waiter last Saturday night at a banquet I attended with my family. It was billed as a gala event and the ticket price was $1,200 for a table of eight. He seated us at the wrong table, and we were half-way through our appetizers when he required us to move. After all of these years, he still doesn’t get it! It is the little things that make the difference.

Take care of the little things…they will keep you on the road to success.