Anyone can sail a yacht downwind

When I was still but a youngster, my eldest brother built a (very basic) sailing boat. We took it to Burrendong Dam, a 1.2TL body of water near my childhood home used for a range of recreational activities.

We brought it to shore and, being full of confidence, I was ready to sail it out across the glass-like surface of the dam. It all seemed too easy to me. Put the sails up and let the wind do the work. I jumped in first ready to take control and my brother was kind enough to humour me and sat towards the front of the boat while I set sail. After a few minutes of sailing I looked back at the distant shore and told all those in the boat that I was a fully-fledged sailor. My brother, waiting for this moment of triumph, then asked me to turn the boat around and head back to shore. Hmmmm. That seemed a little more difficult. The wind was coming from the shore and we wanted to go back. The game was up and I had to admit that I had no idea what to do next.

As my brother took over the helm, he said words that have stuck with me ever since. “Anyone can sail a yacht downwind. It takes a yachtsman to sail upwind.”

And so it is in the world of being a reseller. When demand is strong and times are good, anyone can hang their shingle and declare they are in business. While the wind is at your back and the waters are smooth, it is easy to look good. People are buying your products and using your services. Those supposed experts writing those columns about how tough it is in business have no idea. This is too easy.

There isn’t a problem in this scenario – until there is one.

The test of a good business and good business owner is the first snag. The first problem. The first client issue. The first hiccup. And you can be sure there will be one. And another. And another. Just like a good scary movie or Halloween night, you don’t know where they are lurking but they are definitely there.

Take a simple retail store. The model is simple. You purchase a number of products from a distributor and hang them on your shelves. You add a percentage mark-up and clients walk in and hand over their money. You make money just by being the middle man. Forget that University degree or learning a trade. How easy is this? Then, before you know it, a customer walks in with the dreaded return. “I was just using my phone and the glass screen cracked in my hands. I haven’t dropped it. I am not sure why there are scratches over the back.”

Glass screens don’t just spontaneously crack from usage. Scratches usually appear after dropping a phone. It seems pretty obvious that this phone has been dropped and the glass screen has cracked as a result. The customer wants a new glass screen for free because this one was obviously faulty. I think he is having a lend of me. He seems pretty upset and angry and I want to build a good reputation – but he is trying to rip me off. I use a glass screen and there is no way the screen cracks from finger pressure. Ahhhh. There are so many thoughts going through my head. Can I just tell him to wake up to himself and call him a liar? Wait up – didn’t that seminar tell me the customer is always right? What about if this bloke just comes back every week wanting a new glass screen? Giving him one will set a dangerous precedent. He could go and tell his mates to bring any broken screens into us. We could go broke on supplying glass screens to dodgy customers. Can the customer see all these thoughts running through my mind? I need to speak…

“Ahhhhhh.” Not a great response to the angry customer.

“Ummmmm.” Not much more there either.

Damn! This retail thing seems pretty hard. Whatever I do I think will be wrong. This is my first problem and I am struggling with a response.

And this is the test. Hanging some products on a wall and taking money is easy. Dealing with client queries and problems and returns and everything else that is involved is the true test of how good a business person you are. It doesn’t even have to be a client problem that first pushes you over the edge. I was working with one client many years ago and while I was in their office, one of the owners came into the back room and burst into tears. I wondered what nasty abuse had been hurled at this unsuspecting owner. When I walked out to the showroom to see what ogre had brought this person to tears, I found a well-mannered young executive. After chatting for a few minutes, I found out that he thought the prices in this store were too expensive and he had questioned the staff about why the prices were so high. A shop down the road was cheaper and online cheaper still. As it turned out, he was happy with the fact that stock was available and was going to make the purchase anyway.

It doesn’t seem like enough to burst into tears over but business owners have to be prepared for all sorts of little problems and issues that pop up. Prices being too high; not enough stock; more staff are needed; bigger waiting area; more comfortable chairs; tell your staff to have a shave. I am constantly amazed at the problems that pop up for business owners – and I love to see the innovative solutions that owners create to these problems.

Good business owners are innovators; they are sponges; they are thinkers; they are pragmatic. They have good core principles but they also know the customer is their number one priority. Anyone can open a business in good times. It takes a businessman to run a business in good times and bad. And that is the challenge that all business owners must set themselves. They need that business to continue to run despite a range of challenges – many of which are outside your control. And that is what makes good business owners a rare and special breed.

What would I do with the lying sneaky customer with the broken screen that was obviously trying to rip me off and get a new screen for free? I would replace it with a smile and apologise for the inconvenience and make sure he tells all his friends about the wonderful service – and make a mental note that if he comes back with the same problem again I might have a different answer.

Mathew Dickerson

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