There can be fewer dispiriting things in business than a customer who thinks they know how to run operations better than you. But what if sometimes they actually can?
Back in 2011, Col Skinner was working in digital marketing for a fashion brand based in Manchester city centre. "There were so many staff at this company that we got discounts in local eateries by showing our work ID," he explains.
Skinner would frequent a local fish and chip shop called Leo’s Fishbar. "I loved eating there so I thought I would go and try and negotiate a discount for the company staff," he says. "I went in, asked for the manager and was swiftly directed to a man called Alan Whaley. We got chatting and I found out that Alan had been trying to use the internet and social media to drive more customers. We got chatting and I started to give him my advice.”
This went on for some time before Skinner discovered that Alan’s main business was as an international automotive consultant by trade. After Skinner started Profoundry, his own digital marketing consultancy business, Whaley began telling him about more interesting projects, including the opportunity to go over to Dubai and start working with car retailers. Says Skinner, "I jumped at the chance and have been carving out a name for myself in the Middle East ever since. All from popping in for fish and chips."
Skinner makes a habit of this, it seems. He’s now also managed to bring his accountancy firm, Bright Ideas Accountancy on board as one of his clients. "I find this concept of going from client to supplier works really well as I come in with an understanding of what a customer might want or need," Skinner says, "This makes it easier to collaborate with a brand."
Claire Murray first used restaurant reservation management system ResDiary as a supervisor working at Scottish hospitality group the G1 Group. She says, "I was a total ResDiary advocate then, always finding new features and training my teams on how to use it." When a friend of hers who worked there told her they were expanding she jumped at the chance: "I loved working in hospitality but hated the hours so it was a great way to stay in the industry, yet work at more 'sociable' times. I went for an interview with the global sales manager and was offered a job that day. It also helped my application that I knew a few people in the company from the bar/restaurant scene in Glasgow, most of them also having worked with the system."
Having been a customer meant that Murray was able to hit the ground running as she knew about the product, "instead of spending time at the beginning trying to get to grips with it, I could just go straight into the job."
But if you’re the customer who wants to make the leap over the other side of the fence, you might have to tread carefully. "You do have to be careful that there are no non-poach agreements in place," says Graeme Scott, CFO of HR software system company CIPHR. He got to know his current company when he was still working at Property Software Group (now part of Zoopla), a customer of the system.
He says, "I thought the company seemed like a great place to work. I liked the people and the product but its disadvantage was that it hadn’t had investment in sales resource. It had all the potential but needed to grow. My skill set was helping businesses to scale up. I was a boring accountant but I did know how to help companies grow quickly." When Scott got the idea that his role at Property Software Group might become surplus to requirements, he had a few diplomatic conversations and made the transition seamlessly.
It can be in an employer’s best interests to use their customer base as a source of potential staff. Danny Curran of probate genealogist company Finders International says, "You sometimes just come across individuals with the right package of skills, qualities and cultural fit." When that’s the case, you have to go for it. He found one of his reps while visiting a potential beneficiary to an estate he was investigating. "We struck up a rapport with him and it transpired that he fitted the bill to work for us. As a retired policeman he came with all the skills and experience for the job at hand. It was a good fit." Curran adds, "Sometimes synergies lie through meeting prospective employees in life situations rather than through recruitment channels, and employers need to have foresight to try and identify and build relationships like this."