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Company Culture and Customer Service

people in officeI wrote this in the Minneapolis airport on my way home from a speaking engagement on the east coast. I rose at 3:30 am EDT that morning to catch a 5:40 a.m. flight.

Another airline offered a better schedule that would have allowed me a full night’s sleep—plus a lower price. Why didn’t I fly that airline? Its terrible company culture. I would rather pay more and fly longer than endure its ubiquitous delays and surly employees. I swear the company’s internal motto is, “We aren’t happy until you aren’t happy.”

Like many other entrepreneurs, when I launched my firm 35 years ago I wasn’t thinking about “company culture.” My sole focus was attracting and planning for clients. The marketing, technical, and management divisions all existed within a very small space, my head. There were no targets for labor costs, profits, or overhead expenses, as there were no labor costs or profits, just overhead expenses. I didn’t draw a salary. The spending plan was easy: what revenue came in immediately went out to pay overhead expenses.

I thought I invented financial planning. Seriously. It just struck me there were lots of people wanting to sell financial stuff to consumers, who had no advocate to help them figure out what financial stuff they needed and what they didn’t. I decided not to sell stuff but just offer advice, for a fee, on what clients should and shouldn’t invest in. People were often annoyed at the thought of paying me to do something that they though brokers did for nothing.

In those days financial planning was whatever someone wanted to call it. More times than not a financial plan was simply a salesperson selling a life insurance policy or an annuity to someone. There were no industry standards, no regulation, no written plan, no career path, no profession.

I did eventually discover that I hadn’t invented financial planning, as the course of study training people to become Certified Financial Planners had begun in 1974. In 1983 I became South Dakota’s first CFP. It’s a good thing I did it then. Many years later they added a requirement for a bachelor’s degree, which would have eliminated me since I had dropped out of college.

I named my company Kahler Financial, adding the word “Group” when I hired my first part-time assistant. I was consumed with anxiety hoping I could find enough tasks to keep her busy. Today, my “group” has grown to eight amazing and talented people. We now have professionals on our team with master’s degrees in financial planning, counseling, and investments.

While the company continues to do comprehensive financial planning, its purpose has gradually expanded to include helping clients find and maintain financial and emotional wellness.

My personal focus has also expanded to creating a company culture that provides a work environment that integrates associates’ personal and professional lives. We do this with highly flexible work schedules, work-from-home options, and generous education and wellness allowances for both unlimited professional education and physical and emotional wellness programs. Additionally, we have a unique culture (we are a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO) and use Holacracy for governance) that encourages and supports authentic conversations.

Is such a company culture worth developing? I believe so. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the happier and more fulfilled employees are in their lives and work, the better served their clients will be. It’s true that a great company starts with great people. If I as an employer not only seek out those people but provide them a strong and supportive company culture, they will inherently take superb care of our clients.

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