Funny how the older we get in life, the more we come to appreciate our parents. I for one feel particularly blessed to have been born unto a family of entrepreneurs. Although my mother Barbara passed away more than 20 years ago, the wisdom she imparted upon us kids was enough to last a lifetime. Although my mom taught me many things about life in general, such as always maintaining a positive attitude and believing in yourself, she also taught me a lot more about the real-world of business than I could have ever learned getting an MBA.
You see, my mom, like many others of her generation, gave up her professional career as an executive secretary when she started having babies. When the youngest of her four children went into grade school, mom decided it was time to fulfill her lifelong dream of operating her own business. Having been particularly good at working with her hands and selling her arts and crafts since her childhood, she quickly realized there was more money to be made in selling craft and art supplies and teaching classes, because one individual person could only make so many things to sell. Thus was born the concept of the Kennedy Craft Shop in Lexington, Kentucky.
This was no ordinary retail store; Kennedy Crafts was really more like a social networking club where one was sure to bring any out of town visitors. But the real draw wasn’t simply the craft supplies and classes; it was the authentic, genuine, and warm hospitality everyone received personally from my mom Barbara Kennedy, who soon became known locally as Mrs. Craft. She knew our real business was all about the relationships and connections we made, and not about the products, which in the case of craft supplies could be purchased elsewhere for less. Mrs. Craft somehow made a connection with every customer, ranging from the flower children who purchased macramé, tie dye, and candle-making supplies to the summer camp teachers to the elderly grandmothers who purchased decoupage supplies. Each customer was made to feel special; I cannot tell you how many women I saw walk in that store claiming to be one of Mrs. Craft’s “oldest,” “best,” or “favorite” customers!
This customer service philosophy really paid off for my parents, as Mom’s little business she started in our house soon moved to a local shopping center, albeit the smallest retail space in an end unit at the back of an arcade. Yet within three years we’d moved to a larger location in that center, and also taken over the retail spaces in both sides. By the five-year mark, my dad, George, was able to leave his job as an electrical engineer to come into the business and start a wholesale craft supplies division.
My own career started at age 9 on the day Kennedy Craft Shop opened, and I immediately became fascinated with the family business. I liked meeting the customers, who often brought their kids in to visit me, re-stocking the shelves, and other standard retail tasks such as inventory day. But Saturdays — our busiest days — were my favorite of all as I especially liked working the electric cash register, which I could actually reach thanks to the wooden stool my Dad made. For the next 11 years until age 20, I worked in that little craft shop, watching Mrs. Craft in action daily and not knowing that the business experience I was getting was going to later propel my own entrepreneurial endeavors. In looking back now, so many years later I can clearly see how the same principles and philosophies my parents built Kennedy Craft Shop on have helped me throughout my career, whether as a bellman, front office manager, and for two decades now as an owner of hotel training companies. I hope my readers can benefit in some small way from my sharing of these lessons learned:
Hotel Lessons Learned:
Get to know “the story” behind the customer. My mom went beyond just memorizing names to really get to know her customers and their various stories. She knew which women were having problems at home, where they were planning to go on vacation this year, and how each of their children were doing in school. Likewise, we in the hotel or in any customer service business need to do a lot better job of not only asking “Welcome! How are you today?” but also at actually caring about the responses we hear from today’s over-stressed and over-scheduled guests.
Walk the “storefront window” of your business, even if it is an online business. Each Saturday morning when I opened the store with my mom, the first thing she would do was to check-out the front window from outside to make sure it created an inviting first impression. For my hotel clients, this means paying attention to not only check their curb appeal and lobby housekeeping, but also to focus on any and all “first impression makers” such as trade show booths, website home pages, call center representatives, and telephone communications.
Welcome every customer before beginning a transaction. If you entered our store and weren’t greeted with “Welcome to Kennedy Crafts,” the only reason would be that you were instead welcomed by name.
The telephone is another window to the outside world. From 1970 to 1981 I guarantee you that every call to Kennedy Crafts was fielded property, with an enthusiastic greeting, a name, and most of all a genuine conversation to follow. Although we hoteliers and other customer service oriented companies spend a small fortune each year to make those phones ring, much more could be done to make sure every call represents our hotel’s “storefront window” whether a call for directions, a sales inquiry, or even a cold call solicitation from a local vendor who just might one day become a customer.
Take (reasonable) customers at their word. Long before author Tom Peters made famous the liberal return policies of Neiman Marcus, Kennedy Craft Shop would believe any customer’s story about lost receipts — even if we never carried the product before! By the time their return was processed, we’d be ringing up additional items up front anyway. How many repeat hotel customers have been driven away forever due to a dispute over a vending machine refund or disputed parking charge?
Employees are family. At the start, it was literally true that all the employees at Kennedy Crafts were family, as both of my brothers, my dad, and my only sister also worked there. But as we continued to grow and after we had already hired all the available neighbors and friends, mom’s uncanny way of connecting with others carried on to our new-hires who all became friends of our family that outlasted the business. One thing I’ve noticed — the hotels and customer service companies that have the most fun employee holiday parties also seem to have the most friendly hotel staff!
Eye contact. Although its been many years since I last saw them, I remember vividly that it was my mom’s magical and charming eyes that enchanted each customer as they entered the world of Kennedy Craft Shop. Although they were certainly beautiful on their own, it was the genuine love of people that exuded from them that made so many customers into friends. Too often today’s hotel and customer service employees seem afraid to look our guests directly in the eye. Yet, if we can just hold that passing glance for a three or four seconds and not be afraid to release that smile naturally occurs, we will pay-forward a bit of authentic and genuine hospitality that will surely be carried on to the next encounter for both parties.
Kennedy Craft Shop continued to thrive into the early 1980s and well into my college years. As Lexington, Kentucky, continued its fast track growth and a metropolitan city emerged, soon enough we had Walmart and K-Mart craft sections and so many others to compete with; yet our business continued its successes. Although their success was modest, my parents were able to sell their little business in 1982 and retire to pursue their own marriage-long goal of visiting all of the 50 states. They completed this journey in 1992 and my dad George had the jacket with the 50-state emblems sewed on to prove it! When my mom passed away peacefully and with her family — about three months after visiting the last of the 50 states on their list — I knew she had experienced a life well-lived. Although Kennedy Craft Shop eventually was closed by the new owners who bought the business when I started working in the hotel industry during college, Mrs. Craft still remains a legend to many in my hometown to this day. Looking back now on my own career I know I learned a lot from the manager of that little craft shop and hope readers enjoy these lessons learned and find they are still relevant today.