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Commitment to Customer Service Almost Killed Us

“’The customer is always right’ isn’t always right. Listening to my customer almost ruined me.” Patrick (not his real name) is a brilliant guy. He and I have been friends for almost 35 years. I’ve watched him start, grow and sell one company, and he’s about to exit from his second business. It’s going to be a monstrous event, well into nine figures. Since he lives in a different state, I am not going to have an official role in his exit, but as friends, we talk all the time about the process.

A few weeks ago, I asked Patrick if I could write a blog about his success story. I asked him to describe the pivot point that fueled his incredible growth. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what he said. “One of our founding core values was customer service, so in those early days, we’d do about anything a customer would ask. Once we had a customer, we wanted to over-serve them to make sure they stayed with us. But about ten years ago, we began to focus our service offering, which meant we began to say no to some of our customers. That made for some awkward conversations.” So I asked, “Patrick, I know you are a nationally-recognized authority in your area of service, so did you have to say no a lot?” “You have no idea,” he quickly replied. “Trying to serve every customer, when you know you should focus on just a few things, was one of the most dangerous periods of my business life.”

Patrick is now a frequent guest speaker at conferences around the world. To call him an industry expert would be an understatement. While it seems counterintuitive, by clinging to one of his early core values, “customer service,” he came dangerously close to missing the significant opportunity that focus allowed him to pursue. And when I say focus, I mean having the courage to say “no” to some customers.

Patrick is in the process of setting up foundations that will receive a good part of the fortune he receives when he sells his company. He wants his money to be used for good for generations to come. I told Patrick I planned to share his story because his lesson of focus can also be used for a long, long time.

JIM CUMBEE is President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a retainer-based business brokerage and transition mediation firm in Franklin, TN. Cumbee is an attorney and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Jim is the author of Home Run, A Pro’s Guide to Selling a Business. . He has a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial experiences that make him one of the most sought-after business transition advisors in the state of Tennessee. The story above is true, but the names and fact patterns above have been changed to preserve the parties’ identities.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim is an attorney (non-resident status with the Missouri Bar) and though he no longer practices law, he has read and negotiated enough legal documents to fill a cargo tanker. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and knows how Wall Street and private equity operates. Jim is a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 listed general civil mediator with tons of experience helping business owners (large and small) work through sensitive problems to achieve winning results. He is the author of "Home Run, A Pro's Guide to Selling Your Business, Seven Principles to Make Your Company Irresistible."

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