Why The Final Step?
This Thursday, 23 July 2020, The Final Step will be 33 years old. When I started the company, I had to pay the rent in cash. By the way, this was a reputable Covent Garden office - Garden Studios in Betterton Street. Right now, amid a pandemic-induced lockdown, people won’t touch cash, it’s too risky to their health. So much has changed and yet a lot remains the same, I hope, about why The Final Step exists and why you would pick us to be your colleagues, IT provider or technology partner. Here are some anniversary thoughts on why The Final Step has helped colleagues, clients and the IT community.
Since 22 September 2001 our office has been in the British Medical Association, a Grade II listed building with 24 x7 x365 security. Coming out of the lift we saw our neighbours, The Resuscitation Council, who we are proud to say are a long-standing client. Turn the corner, and along the corridor, you come to our office sign: The Final Step. This led to questions such as “ are you a euthanasia organisation?”. Ironically, the real reason I named my company The Final Step is because I wanted it to say something about what we stand for and how we help enhance company life.
When considering a name I thought about the companies I liked and the sort of company I wanted to be. I am not a fan of brands that exploit status-based pricing. But I have always been prepared to pay more for excellent customer service, and I really admire those who figure out smart ways to add value. So that was my starting vision for my company: one that takes your needs into account and figures out ways to exceed your expectations.
I want clients to feel they have found a level of service that is difficult to surpass; that they have taken “the final step” in terms of finding the best-value IT support that is available. And that we continue to improve so that they have good reason to stay with us. So even before I had heard of Simon Sinek, I had the start of a purpose for why I wanted TFS to exist. I wanted us to belong in that group of companies that over a long time add value, keep earning your trust and build lifelong relationships.
So one of the stats I value the most is that we still have clients from our first year of trading in Garden Studios. We get things wrong. But that stat indicates to me that we get enough right.
Turning those “wrongs” into “rights” is about being prepared to hear the unvarnished truth. So we make sure we ask for feedback regularly. Some surveys are digital, using Net Promoter Scores or our easier to use “Smiley Faces”. Some are more personal and interactive, such as face to face board-level reporting and Q&A. Whatever the format we strive to see it from your point of view. For example, our customer service manager, Mansukh, sits in on internal meetings, such as projects, service delivery, tech research and testing to see things purely from a client point of view and champion your perspective. It’s very satisfying to know from our surveys and benchmarking that we achieve best-in-class customer satisfaction, but the real challenge is in sustaining that. We want to inspire lifelong confidence.
Earning trust and lifelong recommendation
I like technology, but with me, it is not tech for tech’s sake. I like it for how it can enhance my life – solve problems, make things quicker, more accessible, more interesting, more fun and save me time. Technology is there as a tool to help you fulfil your potential and hit your business goals. Most small business owners want to make a difference, do things their way and leave a legacy of some description. To help them do that you need to ensure your inherent enthusiasm for tech is always deployed at the service of their business goal, and not just because it’s great tech.
An honest IT partner can help with that. I think we follow this path instinctively, but the best codification I’ve heard is Patrick Lencioni’s Getting Naked. To paraphrase, exceptionally roughly, he says trust is built on kind truth-telling; discovering not selling and a readiness to admit mistakes and learn.
From day one we teach recruits to be respectful of clients’ best interests and tell them it’s ok to put a brake on a sale or advise against it if it is genuinely not in the clients’ benefit. We want to take a long-term view because we want to work with clients for many years to come. Putting clients’ interests first is in our best interests, but many people miss that as they are focused on this quarter’s results – at all costs.
Technology moves fast, but that doesn’t mean that adopting and embedding it is always quick and easy. Sometimes you need to slow down to go faster, and the adoption of technology needs to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. That’s why we have evolved an approach based on continuous improvement, founded on your business goals and flexible enough to accommodate changing priorities, circumstances and budgets.
We have ridden out two recessions, with the third and most significant recession just starting now. As before, we are flexible, standing by and supporting our clients in whatever way we can, and we believe we will succeed together. Experience of the previous recessions shows that tough decisions will have to be made. Still, we will always strive to make those decisions with clients in the spirit of a shared problem, rather than making them unilaterally.
No organisation can achieve any of the above unless they have the right team. In fact, to defer to Simon Sinek again (Leaders Eat Last), I prioritise fulfilling staff potential above fulling clients’ potential. This is because you will never provide excellent customer service unless you first nurture a safe internal environment for admitting mistakes, criticising management and encouraging change. Holding people accountable, including myself, to get everyone travelling in the right direction, is not easy. Our ethos has been trying not to fall foul of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. There is an impossibly long list of people (staff, ex-staff, peers, clients, mentors, coaches, partners etc.) who have educated, cajoled, remonstrated, inspired and directed The Final Step and me into a better state of understanding.
IT changes pretty quickly, and so requires a considerable amount of technical learning. It is staggering to think of how many things did not exist when we started in the business that now we consider essential:
- Wide-spread networking (sneaker-net was the thing!)
- The Internet
- Mobile phones (our first one was the size of a breeze block, with a pull-up aerial). Even laptops were pretty rare.
- The Cloud
At every stage, we have learned and adapted and brought technology to our clients. And the fantastic thing is that IT is still in its infancy and the rate of change is increasing. We will continue to adapt, learn and encourage the beneficial use of technology. Some learning relates to exams and certifications, which are essential and of real use. However, nothing quite compares to real-world experience.
In July 2005, we weren’t allowed into our office for two weeks, due to the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London. Earlier this month we were in the office and went to pay our respects in Tavistock Square. Thankfully none of our staff was hurt that day; while it affected us, our problems were relatively insignificant compared to the bigger picture of those terrible events. We learned a lot about business continuity and disaster recovery. While our plan was successful in that we were operational for the time we couldn’t get to our office; there was much we wanted to change. Many of the manufacturers weren’t interested in helping us adapt BUDR solutions. When Datto said they liked our thinking and invited us in to discuss it so they could improve their product, it felt like this would be a true partnership.
In 2008 we decided to embark on a more concentrated program of learning. We had met HTG, an IT best practice peer group, at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference and lobbied to get it brought to the UK to accelerate our learning. We wanted to organise ourselves so that we could be a better company and better serve our clients. HTG becoming operational in the UK gave us access to all manner of best practices and partner relations.
One of the requirements of joining is to read Bob Burg’s Go Giver. This business parable is the antithesis of the idea of the “go-getter” who believes self-interest drives success. Instead, it suggests, helping others is the key to success. This may sound touchy-feely, but the truth is that the HTG quarterly meetings acted as a virtual board of directors designed to push you with kind truth-telling and focused goal setting. You returned the favour by giving them equally candid feedback and stimulus.
Probably because it was not always comfortable, it has been an excellent catalyst for change and improvement. It has shown us the path to staying abreast of best practice and remaining best in class. We have facilitated the UK Office 365 User Group, the UK Connectwise User Group, sit on various industry advisory councils, have spoken at conferences and joined the micro-boards of multiple MSPs.
I think this is going to be the toughest year I have faced in business. But if it had to happen, I suppose I am lucky it has happened in my 33rd year and not my 3rd year of operations. When I look back, I have a reasonable amount of experience to bring to bear. When I look around me, I am reassured by the people I have beside me, by which I mean staff, clients and our partners. We’ll keep stepping forwards to new tech, and developing alongside new colleagues, clients and partners.