It is another beautiful day here at camp and I would like to share with you yet another lesson I have gleaned on my journey to earn a type of "Real World MBA" during my time spent coaching at a children's summer camp.
One of the coaches I really respect here, who I have come to consider one of my mentors, asks an interesting question from time to time:
What industry are we in?
A lot of times the staff will answer "The Gymnastics Industry" or "The Education Industry" or even "The Daycare Industry" but that is not the answer he is looking for. The industry we are truly in is The Hospitality Industry. How are we in the Hospitality Industry?
- We make every camper, parent, and coach feel welcome
- We give them an enjoyable experience
- We cater to pretty much all of their needs in some way shape or form
It is a lot like a hotel or a resort in some ways but with the additional benefit that the campers are actually learning skills. Like a resort we have many food options for you to chose from. Like a resort we have special fancy suits for our high rollers (Celebrities and Coaches that bring lots of athletes). We even supply our high rollers with their own golf carts, team t-shirts, pizza parties for their athletes and we treat them to a fancy off-camp dinner at a real restaurant.
My Hospitality Duties at Camp:
Though I am mainly on the coaching side of things I personally play my own role in the hospitality industry. Of course I make sure the athletes are having a good time and are happy but I would like to think I would do that regardless of my role as staff here at camp. My main hospitality duties deal with those aforementioned high rollers, the coaches that bring large teams.
I hold clinics to educate those coaches and the staff they bring. I smile and grit my teeth when they insist on using a technique that I find to be... not super efficient. On a personal note this is a good exercise for me because I have to check my ego and admit that I may not actually know the most efficient technique and try to view the situation as a learning experience.
My final and sometimes most interesting hospitality duty is to make sure the visiting coaches are having a good time. This sometimes means going out to their fancy dinner. Sometimes it means accepting their invite to go out for a bit longer after the fancy dinner despite the fact I would rather be in bed. Don't get me wrong, I am usually up for a good time and normally would enjoy the company of these coaches, but 12 weeks of intense physical activity mean I am ready for bed by 9PM most nights. Still I find a way to muster the energy and ensure these coaches get the best possible experience to fulfill my hospitality duties.
My Hospitality Duties At Schematical:
I have started to apply this same philosophy to my business and I hope my staff will do the same. Technically on paper we are a Software/IT company. More specifically we deal with "Large Micro Service Architecture". Luckily for us there is not an abundance of people that specialize in this and those that do charge a huge premium for their services in an overly competitive market on the coasts.
Even in our niche market we're a small fish. To the big firms on the coast we probably look just a couple of small town yokels that happen to be really passionate super nerds with little resources or traditional big corporate swagger:
* We have no fancy office * We have no fancy stationery * We have no receptionist(and still no office for them to greet you when you walk into it). * We drive beat up used cars * We don't sport the latest and greatest fashion suits and watches(I pretty much wear sweatpants everyday. It is a coach thing).
Yes we are damn good at our jobs because we are really passionate super nerds with over a decade of experience, that love what we do, but is that enough to give us any kind of edge? Perhaps, but not enough for me.
Hospitality for our Clients:
So how do we stand out to our clients even in this niche industry? What can we do that the big firms cannot? We can offer our clients an excellent personalized catered experience. Why is that so important?
Setting up systems the size we do can be quite painstaking and stressful. Systems like our most recent project that have been scaling up IoT devices with real time connections to our servers by about 20% every 2 weeks for the past 4 months (No, I am not kidding). I am not sure "stressful" even begins to cover it. Alarms going off at night telling you there is an outage because 1000 new devices all just came online at the same time. Or worse, obsessively checking for outages because you're afraid the alarm may not go off and alert you. All of this takes its toll.
While any firm decent at doing its job can help fix this, I doubt too many do it with a smile so to say. That is the thing about a lot of really good tech people- they love the code but lack the ability to connect with people. Finding one of those types is like finding a unicorn. Luckily I am one of those unicorns. No I wasn't born this way. I started out as an awkward introvert but fought like crazy to change that. I also hire senior staff that have great communication skills, and a genuine care for our clients as well as the rest of our team.
Because of this genuine concern and mutual enjoyment of working with our clients it makes it easier to jump on the phone with the client at 3 am on a Tuesday or in the middle of a Saturday when you are at the Indianapolis 500 (true story). Because we care, we jump on these odd calls without the sound of indignation that silently screams "Why are you bothering me on the weekend?" Instead, I hope, the tone of my voice for one of these awkward phone calls silently screams "What exciting new adventure do we have before us today on this lovely Saturday afternoon?" I know I mean it genuinely and I truly believe my staff does too.
When working remotely it is even more important that we focus on hospitality. For example I had one of our clients ping me on slack about a part time junior dev yesterday who they had not seen any progress from. I thought I picked up on a note of frustration in their message. I could have just messaged the client back saying I would look into it and get back to them. Instead I asked if the client would like to jump on the phone to talk it out. Mean while I was frantically messaging the junior dev and even called him. Within a few minutes I had confirmed that the part time junior dev had been working on one of his other projects and had not put in any hours on our project during those three days.
I hopped on the phone with the client, allowed them to get off their chest what they needed to. (Luckily they didn't let me have it too bad). I assured them that their concerns had been heard. Since we were at least talking via the phone they could hear in my voice. I was being sincere. Then I explained the situation: Since the dev is only part time they will inevitably have other projects but it is on us to communicate to you and I would be responsible for taking care of that.
Additionally the dev had not been using the project management system correctly, neither had I for that matter. It had not been communicated to us what the protocol was for using the client's internal project management system. So I suggested to the client a 3 way call with the developer to clarify. The call went well and I think everyone felt better after. The client loved the fact that I made them a priority and pulled my developer in to get the information directly. The developer felt good that they now understood what the client wanted and how not to piss them off. Everyone won. All because I picked up the phone and took the clients concerns seriously.
Picking your clients:
Taking a genuine concern in your clients is not as easy as you might think. That is why I suggest you pick clients you have a genuine connection with and consider turning away clients that you don't. Pick projects that you and your team have a genuine interest in and turn away projects that you find tedious, stressful, or outside of your chosen field of expertise.
I don't think I can stress this enough. You have control over who you work with. Pick and chose your clients and projects wisely so that you can deliver the maximum value both in the product you deliver and the experience you, your clients and your staff will have. You might counter with, "But then how will my business grow?" and my question to you is "Does it need to? Will you have the same enjoyable experience if it does?"
Picking your Phone Calls:
I also suggest picking your battles/phone calls. You know how I said earlier I enjoyed answering my clients phone call on a Saturday about a potential server outage. I can honestly say if one of their Project Managers were to call me on a Saturday about busy work like my staff putting their hours into two time tracking systems instead of one, I would be much less likely to take the call. I am just being honest. Luckily my clients are not overly concerned with forcing bureaucracy on us but then again that is because I chose a client that is passionate about the same things I am passionate about.
Hospitality toward our Staff:
Equally if not more important as having a hospitality mindset towards your clients is having a hospitality mindset towards your staff. No I don't mean waiting on them hand and foot. No, but I do mean putting in a little extra effort to ensure the following:
- Making sure their needs are met
- Making sure they have an enjoyable experience overall
- Making sure they feel they are a part of your organization and their contributions are valued
Lets use my junior developer from earlier as an example. Did I just message him on Slack and say, "Get on it"? Or even the more natural "What are you doing?" No. Because I actually care about my team, I called him and the first question I asked was, "Is everything okay?" Because he had been MIA for a few days, I was actually concerned. When it turned out he was just busy I was actually relieved to hear it.
My current big client has actually taught me a lot about creating a good experience for your staff. For example they flew me to Iceland to meet with their CTO that was based out of Sweden so we could do a few days of brainstorming and in-person collaboration. I plan on having quarterly retreats for my team that are fun as well as productive. I aim to encourage them to take time out of their day to pursue passion projects or just work out so that they are not beaten down. I try and cater to their individual needs as best as possible. Again part of the reason I can do that is because we are a small operation.
Basically I suggest that you keep a hospitality mindset when dealing with your staff as well. If they feel welcome, listened to, treated well, and are enjoying themselves you won't need salaries to keep them motivated and building your business with you.
What does camp do to stand out in the hospitality industry? The answer is "Teach." There are a lot of summer camps out there. Thousands and thousands of parents select our camp over other summer camps because we specialize in teaching a specific niche skill. They justify the significant costs of camp because their child will not just have a great experience but also learn new skills. It's a little icing on the cake that make decision to drop the dough on camp a little easier to stomach.
Teach your clients:
It's always a balance if you want to teach your clients to fish or sell them a fish. The businessman will always want to sell them the fish and so do I, but perhaps (continuing with the fish metaphor) I might want to teach them a few recipes so they can cook their fish at home (I personally would consider writing a cookbook and selling that book). Or perhaps I want to teach them how to pick the best fish from my selection. I may want to educate them on the more unique and rare breeds of fish I have for sale. Or even what wine goes best with each fish (then sell them the wine).
At camp we teach coaches how to spot and coach high level skills that might be beyond their current knowledge.
In my business we bring new technologies and project management methodologies that my clients get really excited about.
How can you add value by teaching your clients a little something extra?
Teach your staff:
This is a huge one. Invest in your staff by investing in their education. Provide educational opportunities to your team. Pair juniors up with seniors. Give them some time on the clock to dig in and learn a new skills and experiment a little.
Allow your senior staff to teach. Keep them from getting bored of the mundane and give them some time in the spotlight by allowing them to teach your more junior team and your clients.
Are all my efforts to create an enjoyable experience all strictly for profit? No.
Am I nice to people strictly for the money? No.
If that were true I wouldn't bother with camp. (There isn't much money in it). It is quite the opposite.
I want to work with passionate, talented people on projects that we all get excited about and geek out about together. I love the feeling of coaching an athlete through a difficult skill to success or building an IoT project that scales to over a million devices throughout the world. I cannot do either of these things alone. I cannot do these things alone. I need clients as well as a team to work with. In order to attract the best people to my projects I need to create an enjoyable experience where those people feel like they are listened to and their contributions are valued. That is why my businesses will all be Hospitality businesses.
PS: I am thinking about writing a book on my "Summer Camp MBA" with many lessons beyond my first four lessions please let me know if you would be interested in such a book.