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Look up at the stars, not down at your feet

April 22, 2013

Being in a draughty, dung-splattered rickety-farm building in North Lancashire at 7am, with your hand up the back end of a pregnant sheep is not everybody’s idea of fun. Yet Simon assures me that there’s nothing better than pulling out a moist and steaming baby lamb onto the dirty floor with a beaming farmer looking over your shoulder saying I was a bit worried. Mmmm, perhaps I’ll take his word for it.

I’m currently working with Simon, he’s just bought into a Vet’s Practice, acquiring the majority shareholding from the founder, who wants to retire in a few years time. I’m not helping him with his rounds, but putting together a business growth plan, so I spent a day with him last week to see what a day in the life of looked like.

Straight away, I can see Simon has the number one attribute for success in any business – passion. He has passion for his clients (the animals), their owners (generally farmers, he doesn’t do much small animal work) and for his craft – he cares about what he does.

If you didn’t enjoy the buzz of this business, or have the passion, it could easily pull you down from what I’ve seen so far. Spending a Monday morning chasing a pregnant sheep across a frosty field loses its attraction after an hour. As someone who grew up on the James Herriot’s best-selling books and television series, real life in veterinary science is not as romantic, it’s extremely hard graft.

When Simon said it’s as much about understanding the psychology of cows as knowing the veterinary science, he was absolutely right. His career low to date is being kicked twice by the same dairy cow on different legs within ten minutes. A dairy cow, he explains, has the metabolism of an Olympic swimmer. This is one of those conversation stoppers to be chewed over, like cud. How can he possibly compare those lumbering beasts, ambling from one patch of grass to another with the likes of Michael Phelps powering through a pool?

You have to remember that a cow in its prime can produce between 80 and 90 pints a day, he says. That requires an incredible turnover of energy and that, in turn, means eating the right sort of food. Increasingly we’re rebranding ourselves as consultants, advising on issues like nutrition and disease control.

Next stop is a farm at the end of a five-mile track. He’s working his way through a herd of Friesian heifers, probing around their innards to check that everything is present and correct in preparation for the bull’s somewhat intrusive introduction. I watch proceedings while Simon explains what’s going on.

Milk is a by-product of birth (obviously!) so the more cows that get pregnant, the more profitable it is for the farmer. That’s the bottom line, he adds as his rubber-gloved hand goes in again and yet more dung comes out. Ideally we want them to have a calf every year for six or seven years from the age of two. So we use a rectal probe to feel around the reproductive tract for anything that might delay or prevent pregnancy.

Squeamish? Should have been there, the sound effect and smell were something else. Thankfully, the remaining herd is checked over quickly and, within 90 minutes, we’re in a nearby pub where he’s tucking into steak and kidney pudding and Theakston’s Old Peculiar. Strong constitution.

We all know that the economics of farming today are tough, so from a commercial perspective, how do you run a service business in such an uncertain, cost-driven market, and are farmers as reluctant to pay as some of those tight-fisted Tykes from the Yorkshire Dales that Herriot so memorably described?

Simon’s customer-first philosophy is simple: always turn out for a call, always investigate thoroughly and always be seen to do something. Farmers tend not to be impressed by a laying on of hands and paying for it, he adds, wryly.

Simon checked his call sheet and we were moving again, getting some blood from a horse, taking a biopsy and bringing the sample back for analysis. With only seven or eight appointments arranged, it was a quiet day. The majority of our work is ambulatory.

A follow-up call to check the progress of a horse with laminitis, and with an hour allocated to each visit, it was nearing the end of the day – the final visit was 6.30pm but Simon’s day hadn’t finished. Back at the surgery, he had to develop X-rays, phone clients, pick-up test results, sample analysis, and continue with the admin – invoicing and insurance forms completion.

The hours are long and unorthodox. A full appointment schedule, travelling from job to job in the full knowledge that an emergency could alter the whole days plan, meals on the go, paperwork, long nights on call all have a certain familiarity to the Herriot reader, but of course they have more medicines, technological advances, and mobile phones enabling contact throughout the day.

It’s as intense as any other professional service I’ve been involved with, but with more emotion: No matter how long you do this job for, you never get used to having to put animals to sleep. I’ve been a vet for 25 years, and it’s still very hard to hold back the tears, but I have to remain calm and reassure the owner that they’re doing the right thing.

Simon is a successful professional, he has rapport with his clients – the animals seem to connect with him like a modern day Dr Doolittle – and the farmers trust his diagnosis and recommendations for treatment implicitly. He’s the vet the farmers want to see when they call the Practice. He’s every part the Trusted Advisor, an accolade I aspire to with my clients.

So, what did I learn from a North Lancashire vet’s 12-hour day in the hill farms, where clients have four-legs and ‘getting close to your customers’ has a whole new definition to ‘customer intimacy’, that we can take into our office or factory based businesses?

Be memorable Simon is impressive in the way he combines expertise, personality, humour and powerful communication skills. He leaves a lasting impression. Throughout our lives we encounter many people from many walks of life, but we only remember a select few of those folks. Why are some more memorable than others? Why were they more interesting and seemingly more distinguished from the countless others you spoke with that day?

The answer is simple: first impressions count. They planted the seed in your mind that made them take root in your memory, they made their mark, creating a lasting impression. Be remarkable, make people remember you, you will stand out by default, and it’s the standouts who garner all the business.

Be different, not better It is hard to be better. It’s the extremes that get noticed. If you are going to compete on being better, you need to be way better or way faster or way more professional. That’s not hard, that is way hard. To be way better takes tremendous effort.

But there is another way. Instead of being better, try being different, it is usually significantly easier to do. If your industry is stuffy, be the casual guy. If your industry is casual, be the unwavering professional. The goal is to stand out from the crowd. If you want to be memorable, different beats better, by a long shot.

Listen intently People are smart, they can easily spot when you are pretending to be interested in them. Be genuine when you speak and be intent when you listen. Show that you are truly passionate about what you have to say and that you really are interested in what they are saying. People appreciate sincere conversation. When they know they are truly being listened to, they will be more inclined to listen to you in return.

Be an individual If you want to be memorable, rediscover and harness the traits that make you, you. Be the real you, be genuine. No one likes fake people, people are interested in those whom they can relate to. Show who you really are, let people see your flaws, as well as your triumphs. Be open about how much effort and hard work was put in to get you where you are today. Offer advice, and take advice. Don’t be a know-it-all. Be a person that other people will feel comfortable around.

I think it’s these first four attributes that Simon has in bundles, and as a result, he’s going to be the most successful vet in the area, winning and retaining more customers.

Deliver flawlessly You can offer all kinds of bells and whistles, but if the core product or service your customer purchased from you wasn’t delivered well, your business will be remembered, but just not in the way you’d like. It’s important to set service standards in every business to maintain consistency and excellence in the way you deliver your products or services.

Shock your customers Despite a relentless schedule, Simon goes the extra mile as standard. He personally follows up each and every case, each and every time, showing the farmers that their animals are as important to him as they are to them. This shows he cares, and in the nicest possible way, he shocks his customers. It’s genuine, authentic and personal, and it stands out in the harsh, practical world of farming.

Ongoing, relentless engagement When people think of the product or service you offer, do they think of your business at the same time – in other words, they can’t think of one without the other? Simon’s a partner in the Practice, but his name isn’t in the name of the firm, but he’s the vet the farmers ask for. People buy from people, so make connections and make them sincere, and talk to your customers even when they are not buying.

Remember the small things How great is it when someone unexpectedly sends you a card to wish you a happy birthday or asks how your kids are by name? It’s even more amazing when they didn’t remember your special occasion because Facebook reminded them! Those special touches show that you have taken the time to personally get to know your customers and this goes a long way to building loyalty.

Always Be There Be fully engaged and fully aware of the people you interact with, and simply work with your clients with an intensity, commitment and focus as you’d wish for yourself. You can break this down into smaller, somewhat mechanical pieces – respond promptly, return calls, be on time – but if you are truly present in the moment, consistently, those things will happen naturally. Many people only seem to be “half there”, going through the motions, so being fully engaged helps you stand out. Make your client feel that they are your only client that matters, every time.

Simon’s professional working life is a lot different to mine, but in many ways it’s the same – it’s personal, we both talk to our clients and like to get close, but he gets closer. Quite how he manages to keep his breakfast down each morning during the lambing season doing what he does I don’t know, but he’s personal maxim tells me something about his ambition, and constitution: Look up at the stars, not down at your feet.

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