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5 Principles to Running a Successful Service Business (That I Learned Growing Up At a Motel)

The 4th of July has always signaled the beginning of summer to me. Fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, and baseball games-what better ways to celebrate the kickoff of the short-lived, New England heat?


The holiday also brings back memories of my childhood. I grew up in a small tourist town in southern Maine where my parents owned and managed a motel. Growing up living at a motel made for a pretty interesting childhood where I got to meet new people every day and make friends all over the world.

It wasn't all fun and games. Growing up in a family business also meant that I had to work every summer. I'd do everything from housekeeping to running the front office to painting to cleaning the pool. But I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything. In fact, I learned a number of lessons that have stuck with me throughout my life.

Here are five of those lessons that have really become guiding principles for me in running a service business.

1. Always put the people first. Staff, clients, prospects-if you put the people first, everything else will fall in line.

My parents always put an emphasis on personal relationships. They built strong relationships with guests where they'd stay in touch throughout the year, sending Christmas cards, letters, and emails to guests just to see how they were doing and fill them in on what was going on in our lives. Every Friday night my parents would take one of the repeat guests out to dinner, and they would host small cocktail parties. These relationships kept folks coming back year after year.

They also built strong bonds with the staff. They genuinely cared about (and sometimes for) the employees, and in turn, the employees would regularly go above and beyond the call of duty.

Professional services marketing, selling, and management are all about relationships. If you put people first and allow this philosophy to drive the rest of your decisions, everything else will fall in line. Go above and beyond for your staff, and you will have a group of people working with you who go above and beyond for you, one another, and your clients.

2. The price of entry gets you only so far. The cleanliness of the rooms at the motel, having amenities guests want, and our location got us only so far. In the hospitality business, such things are the price of entry. If you don't have them, you won't survive for very long. But having them only gets you to the starting gate.

Your clients expect excellent service and technical competence. What can you do above and beyond "doing good work" that will help you compete?

3. Ask for referrals. More than 65% of the reservations at the motel came from customers who came back year after year. And the number one source of new customers was through referrals. As my parents built a relationship with each guest, they got know their extended families and friends, and they were not shy about asking for a referral.

It's as easy as saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if you all vacationed together next year?" Or, "Why doesn't your cousin Joe who is staying down the road, stay here? It would be much more convenient for you all, and it would be wonderful to have him."

It's nice when clients make referrals on their own, but as a rule you can't expect them to connect the dots between the people they know who might need your services and you. Ask questions, and ask for referrals.

4. Everyone needs to pitch in. On any given day you would find my mother making beds to help out the housekeeping team, painting a wall in a room, or fielding calls during the busy hours in the office. As the owner/manager, she set an example for me and the rest of the staff that everyone needs to pitch in and help out to get things done.

Helping your teammates goes a long way, no matter what your job description is. It may involve staying late or working on the weekends to get a project done, or proofreading that big proposal, or helping a colleague with a mundane task. As a leader at a professional services organization (or aspiring leader), you set the example that all others will follow. Provide support and help out any way possible.

5. Be genuine. None of this works if you are not genuine. People can tell when you care, are serious about building relationships, and give your all to be the best you can be.

These lessons are among the many I've learned from my parents. I hope that in sharing them, they will help you grow as an individual and a business leader as much as they have helped me.

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