In the last issue of B4, Paul Ballinger, Managing Director of STL Communications, featured in our lead article alongside founder, Brendon Cross, the man who has backed Paul to help him drive the company’s ‘next exciting chapter’. Neither knew what would happen next or that they would lose vital senses when it came to caring for customers and employees.
“I was on a train to Haddenham & Thame Parkway on 17th March when I heard things were changing and changing fast.” Recalls Paul. ”We made the decision there and then to inform management on the Wednesday, make Thursday a home working day so that everyone was up and running from home by the Friday. We were able to sleep easy over the weekend and ‘come back to work’ on the Monday so we were productive….that’s everyone’s biggest fear…losing productivity.
“Ironically, we had been preparing a disaster recovery procedure for months before lockdown so we could prove to ourselves that we could continue if anything happened in the office (building set on fire / something cuts us off etc…), not COVID-19 obviously! We felt that if we were asking our customers to plan for disaster recovery then we should be able to do so with some passion and accuracy from our own experiences.”
As a customer of STL, we’ve always felt that warmth and deep level of customer care from any of the STL team that we come into contact with. It is, as Paul likes to say ‘all part of STL’s DNA’. But with a team working remotely and no opportunities to meet with customers, the wind was taken out of STL’s sails and the team had to learn how to care for employees and customers without the usual toolkit of senses, as Paul explains.
“When everyone is working from home, you lose that sensory feedback of chatter, keyboards being tapped…. you definitely lose a sense when your team work from home. It’s a bit of a falsehood because that noise in the office didn’t necessarily equal productivity – but it was a reassuring buzz and ultimately you knew the work was being done. A lot of businesses had to learn to trust their teams during lockdown from day one and it’s certainly been an interesting learning curve for all of us.
“So we lost a sense but had to remember and lean on another one….trust. Nothing changed from the person you pay a fair salary to every year, it’s the same person but why wouldn’t we trust them to work from home? Yes trust was a barrier to some, not saying for us, but we certainly had to trust the team to work. If you can trust them to work in the office then why not trust them to work at home?
“We implemented some keystroke software so that we could see what the team were working on, what applications they were using. That gave us an idea of who was spending what amount of time on what applications , which ensures the right people have the correct access .As previously explained, we were up and running quickly…we had to sort some staff out with headphones, laptops etc…. but by Monday 20th we had everyone ready to go with the kit they needed. Laptops were going up and up in price…on the Friday they were about £1,200. We managed to get what we needed, but not at silly prices.
“Another key sense we have lost is the sense of how the team is coping. Mental health is a massive issue, we know, so we have to try and get an idea how they are coping. We’ve had some fantastic responses from staff who appreciate that as an employer we care…the disappointing thing from our point of view as management is that without COVID-19 we probably wouldn’t have been as caring as we now are, maybe because we would have felt we knew how a particular member of staff was, but never actually asked. So we’ve lost some senses, but gained more insight into how they are all coping just by asking the question on a regular basis…’how are you?’…and meaning it. Our greatest assets in the business are now remote from us and we’re, to a certain extent, ‘flying a kite’ and all you can feel is the string on your finger and you’re thinking ‘are they OK? Are they really OK?’.
“Until COVID, everyone had a social life to dilute work pressures…what have they got now? Nothing. So we have a duty of care to helping with work pressures now, more than ever before. We had a buddy system at work where we would pair up individuals to provide support in and out of work…that’s been taken away from us and is almost impossible to replicate on line…no matter what you do, it’s just not personal.
“But our staff communication has increased 200%. We are more connected as a team now than we were when we were in the office. We have a management call every day which sometimes last an hour, we have a company meeting twice a month which is embarrassing because we would only have two company meetings a year pre-COVID. There would be small team meetings going on in the office but probably only monthly. The amount of conversations and video calls now is insane in comparison. It’s a lot easier to get people together, it’s a lot easier to communicate quickly and accurately. Our e-mail traffic has dropped because we are communicating via this medium (video conference). I also think the understanding of what we as a company are trying to achieve has improved, after all , if the company doesn’t understand what it’s trying to achieve then you have difficulty communicating that to a customer.
“We’ve changed from a company that is spoken to by a vendor that then goes and sells the vendor’s products to one which is now looking for the benefit in every single solution that we promote to our customers. The education within our business has increased significantly since lockdown because our communication has increased so much.”
For those of you who have met Paul, you’ll know he’s a people person who thrives on meeting his customers. Lockdown has deprived him and his sales team with that vital ingredient in any transaction…the opportunity to build a relationship with the customer.
“The personalisation with customers is key to how STL works and we’ve lost that so it could be damaging for us. Look at what Brendon’s achieved through Twin Town….it’s hard to replicate that in a lockdown world.
“In terms of customers, we really are one or two senses down. When you walk into a prospect’s business you get a sense about them, you get a sense about their business. You have that warm up conversation that you can’t easily replicate on video calls. It’s now difficult to make yourself memorable…we’re sending coffee e-vouchers to clients so we can try and replicate the traditional meeting, but it’s difficult. It’s that little attention to detail to personalise the meeting for your customer or potential customer that we’re missing. We are massive social animals and we rely on those social instincts….we’re losing more than we’re gaining.
“But we’re learning….we’re all learning. We are having to learn day by day. I have no experience of this situation but I learn from the day and apply it to tomorrow.”
So how are STL approaching the return to work and what’s the main focus? “We need to be tentative about returning to work…it has to be…we can’t lose our team. Our primary objective is to keep the team safe. Our productivity is now 96% to 97% but the concern then is burnout. Lots of us won’t stop at 5.30pm…there’s always one more e-mail isn’t there!? But we’re more relaxed about when the team work. We want the team to work when they are most creative….we don’t want everyone feeling they have to respond to every e-mail coming in, because if they are, they’re not being creative.
“But after everyone’s health and wellbeing, our focus has to be on growing the business. That’s going to be hard…the role I’m offering to sales people isn’t the same role they had…meeting people, taking customers out to lunch is off the table for now. We now want more as a business because the team have more time to focus on customers and our knowledge of our customers should be significantly better. The team’s targets will be bigger because they have more time. I am not sure they would choose this role in an idea world, but that’s the world we now live in.
“The last three months has accelerated home working by up to five years and it’s also accelerated decision making from what we’re seeing. We can certainly get more done in a day…the commute has gone, so we’ve been gifted two hours a day.
“The world is also a cleaner place. We are all more focused on our health, looking after ourselves. We’ve not had one sick day, not even a half day sick, in the entire company. We’ve had the odd report of staff not feeling well but no time off whatsoever. So that all adds up to more time to do more including looking after ourselves.”
I close by asking Paul why could STL be the right company for our readers and being a salesman he catches me off my guard with his response.
“We’re not right for everyone. We take time to listen to a prospective customer. We have had customers come to us and say “why are you selling us a product where you make less margin?” It’s about the relationship with STL…we want our customers to have the right product…it will only help us to build trust with our customers. That same customer couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t be the same as their previous supplier who provided the wrong solution for a bigger margin. My focus is the longevity of our relationship and I want to build a longer relationship with my customers than the company who forces a long relationship on its customers….that’s doomed to fail ultimately.
“STL’s responsibility in the IT and comms world is about providing better connectivity with your team and your customers…that’s our job and we think we do it really well. We are experts and you can trust us to provide the solutions for you as a partner. If we do that then we we’re well down the road to retaining or winning you as our customer, a very happy customer.”