As many of you know, I owned a coffee shop for seven years, my most recent adventure before joining the team at IDOC. That seven years was at once the most challenging, most defeating, and most exhilarating time of my life. Isn’t that funny? I often hear reflections on parenthood that are similar; the most challenging, most defeating, and at once the most exhilarating time of life. When we recognize the here and now as an invigorating experience, it doesn’t somehow discount what it took for us to get "here", wherever that is. The journey determines the destination, and for me, what happened before the coffee shop is just as critical a piece of the story.
When I graduated with my degree in a very specific area, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my career, and I went after it unapologetically and with intention. And when I achieved what I thought I always wanted, I was unceremoniously let go during the Great Recession.
That incident, while painful, led me to start my own business, so I am eternally grateful for them telling me to pack my bags (though I won’t be telling them that anytime soon). I remember that day vividly, that moment when your life has changed, and you feel cloaked in despair and you are absolutely convinced everyone around you can see it. The ride home on the train was twice as long as it had ever been and when I exited the station, I walked home. It was far. It was not a walkable walk, especially for someone whose idea of exercise is leaving the chips in the kitchen, so I have to get up every time I want another bowl.
With each step, I left the expectation of what I thought would make me happy, behind, littering a trail of breadcrumbs I would never return to pick up. What I realized that day was that what I thought I was setting out to do (conquer my profession and get to "the top" and be "the best") would not make me happy.
Did I mention that when I got home that day, my boyfriend of 5 years left me? I wasn’t making the people around me happy either. I was making a lot of money, I was leading a team, I was heading toward the top of my profession, and I was miserable.
Fast forward to post coffee shop, when I was interviewing for a top role with Starbucks. I was asked to define my customer service philosophy, explain how I expect to retain customers in a competitive product category, and how I intend to lead a team. "My only goal every day is to surprise and delight; my customers, my team, myself." They offered me the job.
My answer had nothing to do with markup strategies, succession plans, new product launches, or training and development. I simply wanted to spark joy, in my customers, my team, and myself. I had turned a corner. I now stood for something, as a person, and as a brand in the working marketplace, and was not only able to, but refused not to, communicate that new philosophy.
I turned the job offer down.
I spoke with a Practice Manager yesterday who was struggling to communicate to his Owner/OD that changes in the Optical needed to happen. "What changes?", I asked. He only wants to sell inexpensive product, at a high markup, and patients are returning with broken frames regularly, and our existing patient exams are falling. The practice is 8 years in, it is by all financial measures successful, but its patients have let them go, and its staff is about to leave them. I spoke with the Practice Manager at length, crafting a message that had the possibility of being received as it was intended by the OD.
Where did we land? A shift in philosophy toward surprise and delight! Let’s call it The Jerry Maguire. We needed to sell better quality frames, to fewer people, to improve their quality of vision, and ensure the longevity of our customer base, our team, and ourselves. A philosophy whereby parting a person with their hard-earned money sparks joy, leaving them better and happier than they were when they arrived.
A philosophical approach to business may seem lofty. But, 8 years in, philosophy is exactly what our patients expect of us. What do you stand for? How does a customer differentiate your business in their mind, choosing you over a plethora of other options? How do you want to be remembered? How do you want patients to recommend you to others? On what do you base your hiring and firing decisions? What do you expect of your staff? This, and many, many more are just some of the questions, the answers to which become crystal clear when we decide where we stand philosophically as business people. The philosophical approach is how we lead, why others follow, and how we succeed in the long-term.
You don’t have to believe me. Just look at some of the Vision Statements of some of the world’s most powerful companies. Defining a philosophical stance is not easy work. It is not a walkable walk, but it is work we must do. Anything else is just breadcrumbs.
Susan earned her bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising Management from FIT and studied branding abroad at the University of Westminster. Her most recent positions include Merchandise Manager for Cohen’s Fashion Optical and Northeast Regional Trainer for Solstice Sunglasses. Susan started her own business in 2009 and sold it in 2016 to return to Connecticut and begin working for IDOC, helping other small business owners find success on their own terms. For questions or comments about this article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.