The wind sounded like a hurricane, thought Jim Cope as he stared nervously at the green and brown patchwork quilt spread out far below him. Usually, his feet were firmly planted on the ground in Walnut Hills, California, where he runs his landscaping business. But within seconds on that day, Cope, 46, would plunge in a parachute to the landscape below.
You still have a chance to back out. Nobody has a gun to your head. Cope reminded himself that he was jumping tandem--with a partner attached. And I know he doesn't want to kill himself. Emotions swirled through Cope. This is the test. Are you going to do this? Then the landscaper leapt out of the plane, tumbling across the sky.
Even in the best of times, entrepreneurs have gone to extremes, hoping to improve their businesses. But these are strange, often turbulent times, and as the 21st century continues to evolve, entrepreneurs who want to evolve with it will frequently find themselves going to the edge. Are you ready?
Of course, to take your company to the next level, you don't have to make a 10,000-foot jump to Earth. Cope employed an extreme coach to help him manage overwhelming situations, but your idea of extreme might be toiling tirelessly to finish a 14-day project in three.
So take a deep breath, and consider how your company might inject jet fuel into some of its practices. After all, extremes aren't just limited to wacky sports or caffeine-spiked sodas.
Extreme Customer Service
The ultimate customer service is "the ability, when faced with adversity, to still be able to serve the client," says Richard Buckingham, author of Customer Once, Client Forever: 12 Tools for Building Lifetime Business Relationships. Untold numbers of entrepreneurs were faced with adversity September 11, 2001, and David Volpi, 47, was one of them. His Tampa, Florida-based company has a little over 100 employees, but he thinks of it as having a staff of 20,000: His 3-year-old AdvanTech Solutions is a human capital management company that manages tasks for other entrepreneurs.
With airplanes grounded immediately after the terrorist attacks, Volpi couldn't even use his own charter jet to get paychecks to all his clients' employees on time. Considering the circumstances, they probably would have forgiven him. But Volpi has 100 clients in Texas and 40 in North Carolina, and, he says, "at least 50 percent of these employees don't have electronic deposit. They still need that actual paycheck."
The checks were expected Friday. With planes still parked at 4 p.m. Thursday, Volpi made the decision. Four employees "quasi-volunteered," he says, to drive the checks to their destinations. Two employees departed from Tampa, another left from Texas, and another left from North Carolina. "It was like a relay team," says Volpi.
The checks were passed off from one employee to another in Macon, Georgia, and Biloxi, Mississippi, around 2 a.m. When Volpi's team delivered the checks on time, "My people were treated like they had walked on water," he says.
No wonder. Extreme customer service these days is rare. "There's a quest in business for profits and a tendency to not focus on customer service," says Buckingham. "Clients become interchangeable. But you shouldn't be in business to make money; you should be in business to further your customer service goals, and in doing that, you'll make money."
Extreme Public Relations
The 1992 publicity stunt dubbed "Malice in Dallas" of which Kurt Herwald, 47, was a part is still spoken of in reverent tones among media experts. Herwald is CEO of Chandelle Solutions Ltd., a Greenville, South Carolina, company specializing in turnaround crisis management. But a decade ago, Herwald headed Stevens Aviation, a South Carolina corporate aviation company with the slogan "Plane smart."
Then one day, Southwest Airlines began using the slogan "Just Plane Smart."
One of Herwald's employees fired off a friendly letter, jokingly suggesting that instead of suing Southwest, Herwald should arm-wrestle Southwestern's flamboyant CEO, Herb Kelleher, for rights to the slogan. Kelleher loved the idea, and Herwald was blindsided by the volume of phone calls from journalists, eager to know when this arm-wrestling match would happen. At first, Herwald wasn't so sure it would. Corporate aviation is a conservative industry. But Herwald came around, later realizing, "People have more of a sense of a humor than you'd give them credit for."
Prior to the match, Southwest produced films of Kelleher training on a diet of Wild Turkey and cigarettes. In an auditorium packed with 4,500 Southwest employees and passengers, the opponents geared up in a boxing ring. After much fanfare, Herwald, then 38, finished off his 61-year-old opponent in about 30 seconds.
Then both men announced that they would each keep their slogans. Indeed, Herwald admits: "It was fixed." But it had been fun, and it showed that entrepreneurs can solve problems without going to court.
The publicity was jet fuel for both companies: At least 450 newspapers ran the story, including The Wall Street Journal; Tom Brokaw interviewed Herwald; even the BBC got into the act. Within three years, "we went from a $28 million company to doing over $100 million," says Herwald, who in part credits their growth plan, but adds: "A little bit of celebrity in the industry never hurts."
What will hurt is trying too hard to manufacture publicity. "You need to be aware that on any given day, hard news can blow you away," says Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president at Carter Ryley Thomas Public Relations & Marketing Counsel in Richmond, Virginia, which managed public relations for Herwald a decade ago. "You can do everything right in planning a publicity stunt, but you can't control what happens in the world. If there are major fires, murders, accidents or plane crashes, you're toast."
In which case, abort. "You have to be sensitive to what's going on," says Mulvihill. "You don't want negative publicity."
Tom and Mary Clare Mulhall are your ordinary, conservative Chicago-bred entrepreneurs. Mary Clare, 47, used to be director of the test kitchens for Quaker Oats. Tom, 48, was a tax accountant, and now he's president of the Chamber of Commerce in Palm Springs, California. Oh, and the Mulhalls own the Terra Cotta Inn, a luxury, clothing-optional resort and spa.
It may be clothing optional, but Tom admits, "Everybody goes nude."
When you have an extremely unusual business, you have to go to extremes every day, from your sales pitch (typically 15-minute phone calls, allaying customers' concerns about vacationing in the buff) to your customer service: The Mulhalls encourage a family atmosphere, sans the kids; and they tell each customer on the phone, "No grouchy people are allowed to come here."
Every day at 4 p.m., Tom puts on his bowtie--just his bowtie--and goes to the swimming pool, where he serves the customers strawberries and grapes, poolside and in the pool. Talk about an extreme niche market. Tom says there are only two other luxury clothing-optional resort and spas in the country, both in Florida. At first blush--and you will blush--you might think this 17-room hotel wouldn't make much, but the $129- to $169-a-night rooms have been virtually packed for the past four summers, bringing in more than $600,000 in 2002.
Maybe all entrepreneurs should consider being clothing optional. Think of the money the Mulhalls save on uniforms.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.