“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ~ Winston Churchill

I trust your Christmas was fine and dandy, spent relaxing and  re-energising, in the company of good friends and family.

When you get to a certain age, Christmas is less exciting than when you were a child. Yet it’s a wonderful time nonetheless: the time to rest after a long year, time when you can de-stress, sit back and put your feet up, read a book, down a nice bottle of wine in good company, crank up the barbie, get some odd jobs done, go places you’ve put off going to for months, walk the dog a few more times, go to an outdoor cinema, catch up with friends, watch some Big Bash, dip in the pool and laze at the beach. It’s pretty idyllic this time of year in Perth. I ain’t going anywhere.

To spend Christmas with children provides a glimpse back to your own childhood, as they get as excited as ever, counting down the days til the 25th and not being able to sleep the night before.

On the day itself, I am happy to receive a few gadgets (oww, I do love me gadgets me) and a couple of books to read. My favourite bit is to watch my family open each other’s presents . We don’t go at it hammer and tongs, we try to space it out in the two hours or so between waking up and starting the preparation of the traditional roast turkey lunch.

What was different this year was that my eldest (now 16) has her own money, and organised some gifts for her brother, parents and a few friends. It was fascinating to see the joy that giving gave her. She was genuinely delighted in seeing us love what she’d bought us. She put a lot of thought into what she’d get everyone. The fact that she’d planned it all out, used her own money, wrapped and delivered it meant something to her.

Anyone can receive, but to give is far more meaningful. As children grow up into young adults and branch out into the world, they will realise that to serve others – whether it’s friends, colleagues, bosses, clients or shareholders – requires a little giving up of self and thinking about the other person. The best team mates will be selfless, as will the best leaders.

It’s a life lesson. Perhaps one of the most important to learn.




Farewell iiNet

Michael Malone looks on as iiNet shareholders vote in favour of sale to TPG

Tomorrow TPG take over Perth’s (as yet only) billion dollar tech startup, Australia’s #2 internet service provider iiNet, with financial settlement on the deal.

Founded in his Mum’s Padbury garage in 1993, because newly graduated Michael Malone wanted to continue to use the internet post university, the rise of iiNet is testament to Michael’s audacity, vision and hard work, and in latter years, as an example of a company that truly understood (and lived and breathed) that the customer was always at the centre of things.

In the mid and late 1990s, with government-owned Telstra slow to get into national broadband, a whole host of small ISPs were established in Perth. iiNet was quick to soak them up as it grew to its own IPO and beyond. Michael took the company public in 1997, acquiring Wantree, Networks and Net Trek along the way. In the 2000s, a dozen other acquisitions occurred including Malcolm Turnbull’s own Ozemail, and New Zealand’s iHug.

As iiNet grew so it went head to head with Telstra, and then, in 2005/6 a stutter occurred, which was almost terminal. Due to some accounting problem post a recent takeover, results sent to the market were later revised, causing the stock to be suspended for weeks, and a decimation in share price. This brought in new board members and the sale of iHug.

It proved to be a mere misstep, from which the subsequent acquisitions of Up’n’Away, Westnet, Netspace and Internode pushed it past Optus into 2nd place in the residential broadband market in Australia, with only the now privatised Telstra ahead of it.

In 2008, peering from afar was an unlikely foe – the Hollywood movie industry. In attempt to knock off a small fish on the other side of the world, as some test case for further legal action elsewhere, a class action was brought against iiNet by 34 movie and TV companies including the mights of 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros and Village Roadshow. They claimed iiNet should have done more to prevent illegal downloading of movies by its customers, which iiNet argued was akin to blaming road building companies for every car crash. iiNet famously won the case, and two subsequent appeals. Other ISPs around the world breathed a sigh of relief.

After 20 years in charge in 2013/14, Michael took 6 months off to go mountain climbing and respected former Brit and CFO David Buckingham took over in an interim role. When Michael returned, his heart was not really in it, and he left for good in mid 2014, still a major shareholder and no less passionate, but with other things on his mind. He remarried and moved to New South Wales, buying himself a large mansion in the country. He joined a few startups as a board member.

When low cost provider TPG made an offer to iiNet earlier this year Michael was incensed, claiming the board had lost all growth plans for the company and were folding too easily. In a prescient warning, he said the board and TPG were “appalling silent on the impact this would have on our staff and customers.”

Michael had made ‘serving the customer‘ the be all and end all of the company. Everyone, including him, was remunerated on NPS (net promoter score) – a gauge of how evangelical your customers are with your service. iiNet won award after award for this.

A few months later a rival bid came in from M2 which prompted TPG to up their initial offer. In July Michael bowed to the inevitable and 95% of shareholding went along with the deal. He looked saddened (see picture) but also must have felt pride in the final valuation.

2 weeks ago the deal passed its last administrative hurdle, with the ACCC allowing the merger to go ahead. The following week TPG acted swiftly, removing the CEO David Buckingham, and many management reporting lines were changed. An interim board was put in place, which disbands tomorrow. The swiftness of these moves were a shock to many inside, and outside, the company.

Time will tell if the customer-focus essence of iiNet will remain. Many fear that if their well renowned devotion to customers drops away, so may the client base. 600 staff inhabit 502 Hay Street in Subi – how many will be there by Christmas, or the same time next year?

Whatever happens will not diminish the achievements  of this son of an Irish fence maker, who built up a billion dollar company from scratch, taking customer calls by his bedside at all hours of the night in that Padbury garage back in the early 90s. Over 20 years this brought him many admirers, amazing experiences and enormous wealth. It’s been quite a ride.

Photo : Philip Gostelow

Customer Service Supreme – well done iiNet

iiNet totally gets customer service

Thanks iiNet for being a business that totally GETS customer service…

Rang up for a new nano SIM card today (… it’s Christmas Eve) – phone answered and I’m speaking to a real life person within 10 seconds. 10 minutes later I’m walking into their store, having parked right outside, I am greeted nicely and take a seat in the lounge area. During that few minutes wait I glance through some plate glass and see their NPS (net promoter score) screen displaying their up to date score. A friendly staff member comes over, sorts out my new SIM in about 30 seconds and does not want to charge me for it. I’m in and out in 3 minutes, and feel like a King.

And now I’m telling you.

Good, genuine attention to customers actually makes sense; wow them and they not only repeat buy, they become brand evangelists and spread the word. If you don’t know what NPS scores are and how they make customer service central to what a business does, Google it! or click here, or here.

More businesses could learn from this, and maybe enjoy more success in 2015.

Merry Christmas all and see you next year.

Social media and customer service

customer service

A CEO (of a company in the UK) put out a circular to his staff last week asking them how they could use social networking to “improve customer service” or “reduce potential complaints“. I find the question itself interesting (and revealing) – customer service is the experience the buyer has when they interact with your service. It’s totally in their mind. It’s how the phone is answered, it’s how reception looks, it’s every little thing… These days everyone expects good customer service, even great, so the objective now for businesses is to ‘wow‘. Only by ‘wowing’ can you set yourself apart. It’s the new normal. And that’s got to be good for customers.

A few years ago, as we started our small online business, I remember reminding my staff that we had to wow our customers every day, at every opportunity. Considering we had pesky real estate agents as customers, that was going to be a challenge (!) We did not use social networks to “improve customer service” or “reduce potential complaints”. We used good old fashioned manners and courtesy. I employed people (irrespective of their IT background) who could learn fast but had a deep seated desire to help people. These two aspects were all we needed.

Roll on ten years and we’re in an era of social connectivity. The water cooler conversation of old is twitter today. Organisations in 2014 can use social media to actively watch what people are saying (using # and @ discussions on their name), they can engage with their customers, answer questions, post ideas, ask things, forward good thoughts, thank people for their points, etc. even turn around complainers. Most companies have a full time person on this, or a team of people.

Example – I was giving a “Twitter for real estate agents” course a few years ago, and an agent I will call Barry (for that was his name, bless him) did a search on his own company and was alarmed to find this one tweet had been put up only a few hours earlier: “Property —— <name deleted> are the worst real estate agent – stay away! ” Barry was distraught. What should he do? Could he sue the person? Delete it? After he calmed down a bit, I asked him to call his office and see what this person was talking about and why. He came back and said it was already sorted, the person had been a tenant and had not got her bond back, so had vented on Twitter. OK, so what now? Barry tweeted her back saying he’d sorted out the issue, and to call him in the office if things were not all fine. A few hours later, the tweet was removed (only the person who tweets can remove the message). Problem removed, and I bet that lady had a high opinion of the company as a result, and told her friends about it, as I am telling you now.

Ignoring twitter does not stop people talking about you anyway. Better to be ON there and (at least) surveying the conversation, then maybe taking part, engaging, adding, contributing …

My favourite example of customer service and social media is one I use a lot in my talks – that of Peter Shankman in 2011 and his fantastic true story of Mortons steakhouse. This actually happened, and was not a set up! Peter’s story of how a steakhouse got a meal to him after a long business day and a flight back to New York provided so much free press and positive attention for Mortons over the next few days and months, worth in the multi millions, and all for a simple act of being awake, involved and having the wherewithal to act.

By contrast, I posted 2 Aussie companies and their comparative use of social media around customer service.

Can social media be used to  “improve customer service” or “reduce potential complaints”? Sure, but that’s a bit like saying can you use the phone (or words, or technology, or…) to give great customer service. You’re asking the question the wrong way round.

Infographic above: from Clicksoftware 2012