I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts the other day and the celebrity host and guest were talking about anecdotes, and whether either of them actually had any of merit to share with other people.
The host gave an example of his having been a recent guest on 60s style icon Twiggy’s podcast and having been asked who the most interesting person he had ever sat next to on an airplane was.
He was stumped and then said ‘...well I did once sit next to a psychologist and she was sort of interesting...what about you?’ To which Twiggy replied ‘Jacques Cousteau’.
Now, bearing in mind that the French underwater explorer and filmmaker died nearly 25 years ago, all I can say is that he most certainly must have been pretty darn mesmerising for him to be the lucky man to enthral Ms Lawson.
My wife started her career as an airline cabin crew member a few months after Mr Cousteau’s death, so she was denied the pleasure that was afforded to Twiggy, but she has met some fascinating people over the years. None of whom she is going to allow me to talk about unfortunately!
Apart from my spouse, who I have sat next to on many a flight, I did have an enlightening conversation with an elderly gentleman from the West of Ireland whilst going on holiday one year.
When we go on our annual summer trip to the sun, my two children and my other half generally sit together on one side of the aisle and I get the seat across the way on my own. So it’s not unusual that I am in the position of passing the time with new acquaintances.
After the initial hellos, and when the plane was levelling off after take-off, it was clear that the man was what you can only term a gentleman- a man who is gentle. Softly spoken, yes, but also clear and concise.
And as these types of discussions often begin, we asked each other where we were from and where exactly we were headed when the plane would land.
I had recently spent a long weekend with my family in a hotel near to where my travelling companion lived and so we were already becoming firm friends as the conversation continued.
I asked him that other cliché question about what he did for a living and he mentioned he was in credit control for a home heating oil supplier. He had previously worked in car sales but had been now doing the current job for some thirty-five years.
I had recalled a news article in the local paper on my trip that had mentioned oil distributors being scammed in a spate of thefts, where the thieves were asking for a supply to be provided to empty properties and were siphoning out the oil and avoiding payment for it. He was aware of this but it hadn’t happened to his employer, he was happy to report.
I appreciate that what I am going to say next will make you think - ‘Johnny... I’m not sure where this story is going… but if this guy is the most interesting person you’ve ever sat next to on a plane… I seriously doubt that he will ever be saying the same about you!’
In my various business interests, overall awareness of credit control has been central to my role. We can all provide a service but its never that easy to ensure one always get paid.
I opened up to this (now former) stranger that I had struggled with managing small accounts; the smaller the invoice issued, the harder it seemed to be to get payment for. Hence we had had to cease providing some services where the amount per transaction was too insignificant and the failure rate of payment was too great. I lamented that what it had led to was a situation where we had lost clients forever over an unpaid account in very low, three figure sums - the sort of amounts I imagined he was dealing with on a regular basis.
I was intrigued as to how he could stick to a long-term career doing the things that I couldn’t commit to for more than about 18 months.
It was very simple, he enlightened me.
‘We have a policy that we never write any money off. We will always get paid in full, no matter how long it takes.’
Now, as a lawyer you can appreciate that all I could think of right there was how much hassle it must be pursuing all these debtors in small claims court to get the funds off them long after the oil had been burned.
‘No, that’s not what we do. We’ve maybe done that a couple of times but it never comes to that. We operate in a rural community. If someone orders a fill and they don’t pay us then we could lose them as a customer if they go and get the next order from someone else, who they may or may not pay. So it’s not good business to let them do that.
And we don’t send out statements every month and we don’t ring them up regularly chasing the money.
If we have someone who can’t pay what they owe, I go out and see them. We agree with them that they can pay for future supplies, as and when they can afford it, on delivery, which means they never need to look elsewhere. And I always make sure I get something off the debt. Even if it’s just a euro.
And I go see them regularly- not every week or even every month, but I will be out to see them. And you know what happens? They are not just customers or debtors; they are my friends.
We’ll have tea and cake or biscuits, sometimes even dinner with the whole household. I know everything about them, and they about me.
They don’t dread me coming, its a real joyous occasion and even though I might only leave with a fiver or a tenner towards a five-hundred-euro bill, it doesn’t matter. It’s all getting chipped away at and eventually it gets cleared.
It’s just such a great job to be able to put people at ease over something that otherwise would be making them anxious or upset. Never needs to be that way.’
I was blown away by that- the insight, the patience that must be required. He was like Rodin, sculpting away at his customer base and creating something so incredibly strong and resilient that it would last forever.
Turning a situation that, for me and the inept way that I had dealt with it, which had cost me clients, into something that would actually produce a customer for life. A growing client base rather than a diminishing one.
It was so straightforward and yet so complex and difficult. It required thoughtful compassion but with the dichotomy of being both relentless and yet calm.
As Jacques Cousteau might have experienced it, it was like snorkelling through a school of a thousand tropical fish - showing the importance of knowing where and what to look at, even in the middle of what seems like chaos!