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Shiny happy people

What do you do if you’re a flooring contractor in the Scottish islands where the (small) customer base is spread far-and-wide across difficult-to-access locations? Rory MacGillivray, founder of MacGillivrays Floor Furnishings, has the story for Adam.

IN a world where there seems to be an almost infinite supply of customers it’s no wonder that some businesses become complacent; they believe the law of averages will give them enough footfall to generate life-sustaining revenue and more.

But what do you do if you’re a business set in the Scottish islands where the (small) customer base is spread far-and-wide across locations that aren’t always easy to get to? Well, that’s the problem that Rory MacGillivray, founder of MacGillivrays Floor Furnishings, has to grapple with daily in his own version of Groundhog Day.

And for him, each day starts with the premise that he’s going to aim for a series of happy customers who are ‘genuinely pleased with the whole service, work, costings and aftersales to the point they are willing to recommend us to family, friends while also being returning customers themselves.’

Every little counts
To set the scene, Rory lives and works among a very small group of communities with a total population of about 6,000 people, spread between seven islands. South Uist and Eriskay have 1900 souls, North Uist and Berneray have 1600, Benbecula 1300, and Barra and Vatersay another 1300.

Compare that to an average market town and surrounding areas with, say, a population of 12,000 and you see the problem.

And for Rory this is the reason why every lead and customer counts.

As he explains: ‘All of the islands are linked by causeway other than Barra and Vatersay which require a small ferry journey of an hour – usually accompanied by a pod of dolphins. From such small populations, in close knit environments, it’s easily understood how poor service can spread bad news about a company or service.’

Rory is certain that living or dying by reputation is never more apparent than for those businesses operating in these locations – especially as social media keeps on extending its reach.

Fundamentally, Rory doesn’t have the luxury of regular passing trade: ‘We can’t widen our catchment area by travelling or advertising in towns or villages an hour down the motorway; for us, that involves two-hour ferry journeys and overnight accommodation that can be costly and difficult to get during the summer. So, we have to focus on getting the most business from our own group of islands and the only way of doing that successfully is to deliver added value, on time, 100% of the time.’

There’s no other way – Rory’s business has ‘to grow through reputation and referrals’. And he illustrates this with the example of LVT, which, when it initially came out, saw ‘a bathroom or kitchen fitted in one house very often followed by a measure request from the aunt, uncle, brother sister friends of the initial customers’.

Of course, as Rory notes, this sounds great, but ‘there’s always a ‘but’, and our ‘but’ is small populations and lower than national average incomes’.

As Rory highlights, ‘we don’t have the luxury of an average of 15 or 20 leads a day and needing a conversion rate of 50% to fit our business plan. We have an average of maybe five or six leads per day and we need at least 90% plus conversion rate’. And to compound the problem, because of the small populations, Rory says firms aren’t able to have just online plays and neither can they target a specific market sector – ‘we can’t just offer floorcoverings – we must do more… beds, blinds and furnishings.’ He adds, however, that ‘despite the lower-than-average income, we believe it makes people more careful – they want it done right first time so they understand that maybe paying 10% more gets you far more value longevity and appearance; that extra 10% now could be the most important part of the spend.’

Loyalty pays
And this approach clearly works as he says that he has ‘numerous customers – families – who have been with us for 30 years.’

In fact, Rory reckons that 80% of more of his business is repeat custom – ‘usually once, maybe twice a year, as they work round their home.’

Interestingly, he tells how 25 years ago, business leaned more towards quality with the goal of having ‘a really good quality carpet that would be very well looked after in order for it to last as long as possible. That’s still the same with the older generation.’ He says that they come in and ask for an Axminster, Wilton, or an 80/20 then pick colour. But, Rory says that ‘flooring has become more of a replaceable item, more fashionable to ‘redo’ the lounge etc. Grandparents don’t think anything of spending £2000 on a lounge carpet that will do for the next 25 years. In comparison, grandchildren want decent quality but willing to change every five years.’

‘Gross local happiness’
They say that ‘people buy people’. It’s true. But it’s also fair to say that ‘happy people return’.

Rory has had one central policy as the backbone of his business – to look beyond the sale to the complete job: ‘When I started we would travel to a customer’s house with a carpet in the van and our thoughts would simply be, ‘this sale is already in the bag, its already been bought, paid for, but, what we do from here, as in how we perform in their home, is what influences the customer on the final stage of the satisfaction scale.’’ By this he explains that he was looking to being recommend to others and having them come back themselves in the future.

And the process, for Rory, starts at the door with conduct – ‘if the customer likes you, your work is immediately easier. Simple manners and respect are all it takes. We are in the service industry and it’s as personal as it can get… we’re in their homes, in every room, their private space.’

And Rory emphasises that a fitter with good manners will get better feedback that a much better fitter with little manners.

Rory also takes the line of pure customer service. He says that ‘when a customer buys a carpet, or whatever, they want the job finished, no hassle. Or put another way – company A, fits, vacuums, takes all the waste away including the old carpet, cuts and rehangs the door – all chargeable. Company B leaves the waste in the corner, doesn’t vacuum, leaves the old carpet outside, doors off the hinges as they needed cut. Who do you think the customer will recommend?’

Now to be clear, Rory isn’t trying to tell anyone how to run their business, but he makes a very valid point: ‘We opened three shops in three different locations and within a short time our growth was exceptional.’ He adds that he’s continually surprised at the attitude displayed by a huge number of companies and floorlayers who retort that ‘we’re floorlayers – we don’t vacuum … it’s not our job’.

But that for Rory is the easiest part of the job which probably makes the biggest difference in the first impression given when a customer sees their new carpet. As he says, ‘we are all selling the same, but it’s what you sell with it that makes the customer choose who they go back to.’

But while it’s important to acknowledge what a business knows, it’s what they don’t know that can haunt them. Former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, back in 2002 summed up the problem well when he said in an Iraq briefing that ‘there are things we know we know… there are known unknowns… and there are also unknown unknowns’.

And Rory thinks along the same lines. It’s the reason why he says each time he opened a shop, ‘for the first year we ran pre-paid postal surveys which excluded names and addresses. A lot of surveys are about collecting data and detail to resell to these same people. We specifically told the customers we were asking for their complete honesty – hence the anonymity – on how we performed from the initial phone call, their walk into our shop, waiting times, quality of service, range of products, pricing, fitter’s arrival time, conduct and so on’.

But he says that that there were two final questions – ‘would you recommend us to family and friends, and ‘would you use us again?’.

Rory says that the feedback he received was incredibly positive and so, to the present day he either calls customers or sends an email. In his own words, he implores customers to tell him ‘if there is anything at all they are unhappy with, please let us know. We genuinely would rather know as it’s our reputation at stake.’

Making friends
But of course, no business can ever please all of its customers all of the time. And as is often said, the test of a business is not what happens when all is well, it’s what happens when problems arise. And Rory is well aware of this. He says that when issues arise ‘speed is of the essence. It’s not just how you respond, it’s how quickly and it’s absolutely key to the final part of winning a customer’s complete trust.’ And he proves the point by saying that ‘some of our very best customers are those where we were called back, and we did so very quickly to rectify the problem.’

He continues: ‘Why wait until the relationship is beyond frosty? Once something goes wrong, which it occasionally does, once resolved, we also send a card with a 10% discount of their next purchase.’ As he says, the main aim is to firstly get the issue resolved and secondly, to get the customer back into the business.

And sometimes it’s necessary for Rory to quite literally go the extra mile to keep a customer happy. He gives an example.

‘Our biggest customer, by far is a property developer. He develops high end properties throughout Scotland and uses us to do the flooring for him. On one project we did nine out of 10 high end town houses with wood flooring. He was delighted with them all.’

But as Rory tells, the last one clashed with another job and he made the fatal error of using a subcontractor.

‘The day after the job was completed,’ says Rory, ‘the project manager phoned me – ‘Rory, it’s a *&!%* mess, you need to get out here, I’ll bury the keys so James doesn’t find them, it’s being handed over tomorrow’. That call was Thursday morning at 8am. I caught the midday ferry – a two-hour crossing, travelled four hours to the job, and it was a mess! I worked round the clock and fitted the last plank at 7.30am as Richard walked in’.

But then there’s also the more mundane where he can have situations that can be difficult to manage – but fortunately Rory says that they are very few. ‘We’ve all had the customer who comes in a week later to say there is a stain on the carpet. When we inspect you can see the stain is also on the backing and underlay, but what are the chances of the carpet stain matching an underlay stain? However, it’s a bedroom carpet, and it’s £150 to replace or argue the point. We could perhaps lose the future business of that customer and maybe their extended family, so we replace it – we’ll get it back in repeat business.’

Customer’s eyes
It’s very easy for a business to see everything from its own standpoint. But Rory suggests that it’s probably ‘better to look through the eyes of a customer – what do they see? Can the customer really tell the technical differences between the work of two fitters? No, they can’t but what they do see is attitude and manners.’ By this he means using facilities without asking, radios at voluminous levels, bad language, phones charging without asking – ‘quite honestly a lack of respect in someone else’s home – would they honestly accept that in their own home?’

When looked at through this new prism, good workmanship becomes insignificant.

To repeat what Rory has said before, ‘customers do note respect, manners, and they appreciate vacuuming up, and the taking of waste away… it takes less than five minutes to vacuum a bedroom and take out waste – it’s the most unskilled part of the job’.

And Rory says he’s constantly amazed by fitters on flooring forums ‘boasting how much they earn while at same time complaining how they are so hard done by’. Of course, Rory knows from bitter experience that fitters work really hard – ‘I don’t know of any other trade that is so physically demanding,’ he says. But in his view, it’s true that customers are getting more difficult to please, ‘but fitters don’t help themselves.’

In their defence he thinks some employers don’t fully appreciate how difficult their job is. But he says that ‘I truly value my team, I know how hard they work, and they really do fly the company flag’.

He reckons good floorlayers are becoming more difficult to find. Even so, when Rory chooses someone to work with, ‘it’s not just about how good they are as floorlayers, it’s equally about how they conduct themselves – it’s every bit as important’.

Warding off trouble
And to illustrate the extent to which Rory values his customers – remembering that his community is small and widely spread – he offers detail on the lengths he’s gone to in order to ward off trouble.
He casts his mind back to when he started out in 1990 when there was limited travel between some islands – often only passenger only ferries. In these situations, he tells how he had to ‘arrive at the dock, load all we thought was needed onto a small ferry, then travel over to the island where we were met on the other side.

‘Everything was unloaded from the boat before we travelled to the house. In those days, we were unable to see the job in advance for obvious reasons so it was extremely difficult to know what we needed – we couldn’t nip back out to the van to get a different door bar and so on.’

The weather has caused Rory many a nightmarish problem – high winds and high tides can coincide leading to the inter-island causeways not being passable.

So, as this story goes, its five days before Christmas Day and he and his apprentice are on the isle of Barra and a storm has set in. ‘Now, for clarity, when we say a storm, we’re not talking about 50mph winds that blow across mainland Britain. For us, 50mph is just a breeze, 60-70 is ‘getting breezy’, 80mph raises a few eyebrows… 90-100mph winds is what we call a storm.’

Wind severity can be destructive he says: ‘I remember a radar that was tested in the Sahara Desert for six months in winds over 100mph before it was approved for our outlying radar points… having been approved, built and erected, it lasted two weeks here.’

Back to Barra. The storm five days before Christmas has seen ferries cancelled. He and his apprentice are stuck: ‘We had 17 carpets to get down before Christmas, and the weather didn’t look like it will improve for another two days, at least. So, we made the decision to take a flight from Barra (Barra airport is the beach – flight times coincide with when the tide is out) to Glasgow, then from Glasgow to Benbecula. We’d take our tools, hire a van in Benbecula and do our fits in time for Christmas. All simple, in theory.’

But the flight, in a small twin otter propeller aircraft in a storm, ‘was not,’ says Rory, ‘my most favourite experience’.

Once in Glasgow, he transferred to the Benbecula flight desk, but was told that due to storms the flight had been cancelled. So, his van was storm bound in Barra, he was storm bound in Glasgow, and all of work was in Benbecula. He had 17 floors to lay before Christmas and Christmas Day was just four days away.

With some relief Rory says that ‘we managed to get home mid-morning of the 23rd and got our van at lunchtime. We walked out of the last house at 20 minutes past midnight on Christmas morning.’
Today, he laughs about that adventure, but with mixed feelings – ‘I had three children under five and I missed all the excitement of Christmas Eve and Santa.’

It was a huge learning curve. As Rory says, ‘there are some customers who care not about your personal situation. Looking back, I was able to give my family a good living but there were also times when the balance of work and family could have been better.’ It’s now company policy to never work off island on Christmas week; his teams have families, and he would hate for that to happen to them.

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