Although talk of automation is rife throughout the business world, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are finding that staff still have an incredibly important part to play in their growth and development. While larger international companies can afford to invest in technology that will enable them to run autonomously and recoup their investments in the long term, SMEs don’t often have such a luxury. Instead the personal and human element remains the key strengths for an SME, because they can guarantee better customer service than companies that deal with millions of transactions every day.
For SMEs, it’s all about selecting the right staff, and here at the London Cycle Workshop, I’ve learnt that the right support can be the difference between success and failure.
The London Cycle Workshop (LCW) probably isn’t your typical bike shop. We don’t actually sell bikes, old or new, instead we offer a repair service for any type that is brought through our doors and have a number of highly-qualified mechanics who can fix them. It’s a model that’s served us well, but it’s presented some unexpected challenges. Uniquely these days, we don’t have an online store to serve as a source of revenue and we don’t use a calendar system for bookings, instead customers can drop off their bike whenever they have the time, and we lend them one of our replacements.
This means that almost every interaction the customer has with our business starts with a conversation between them and a member of staff. It also means for me, hiring the right people who best represent the ethos of the business is incredibly important. I need to find the mechanics that don’t just fix a bike, but know what quality customer service entails. Because we’re a service, we don’t necessarily have a visible product that advertises for us, so it’s the staff that become even more important for our brand.
The importance of a good manager
But it’s not just branding that staff help with; having a good manager helps shape the direction of the business as well. Although I personally miss being able to spend time in the store fixing bikes as much as possible, relinquishing control of the store and letting it grow under a new steward has enabled me to focus on the other aspects of growing a business. I run a profit share for managers as an incentive for them to make LCW the best business possible, but I’m taking things slowly – I’ll only open another store if I can find the right staff to run it.
For me, I’ve discovered there’s a balance between running a store and seeing the big picture and truly understanding what’s going on once you enter your own doors. When I do get time to go down to the shop, I make sure not to let customers know that I’m the owner of the business, I’m just one of the mechanics on duty. Seeing how customers interact with the mechanics without me there to escalate an issue gives me a real insight into how the store is run when I’m not around.
Because there’s also a freedom in choosing the right staff. Now that I’ve got managers and mechanics that I can trust running the stores, it leaves me free to focus on the wider company.
How technology can help
Technology is an important tool to help you scale your business and maintain control as you grow. A good system not only helps me as the owner manage stock and customer relations, but gives my staff the tools and resources they need to represent the business correctly. I use Lightspeed, an electronic point of sale service that runs entirely from my iPad and enables me to use their inbuilt analytics and sales data to make decisions about running my business more effectively. It’s something of a guilty pleasure, because I’ll even go home from work and play around with the app! Being able to analyse this data and step away from store matters makes it so much easier to start planning the future, rather than just constantly worrying about the here and now. It also gives me confidence that my staff will be able to run the business and perform tasks the way I’ve intended.
When people shop with an SME, I think they still expect a more personal and reactive customer service, and for that to happen, good customer service has to involve people, because we’re still at a point where humans can use context better than any machine can to offer the best service possible. Maybe there will come a point when computers and robots will be able to do everything, but for the foreseeable future people still have a massive part to play in a customer’s interaction with a business, which is why selecting the right staff for the future is so important.
Even in this market, I don’t think that SMEs have to struggle with expansion, because there’s technology out there today that helps level the playing field massively. Where SMEs will continue to have an advantage over these larger corporations is through the kind of customer service we are able to provide, and ultimately the buck stops with the staff we hire.
Simon England is founder of the London Cycle Workshop.