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Here's what happened with Salem

(A 5-minute story)

“You need to meet Loaay,” Abdullah said. “He knows how to help you find the right problem.”

        “But I tried everything.”

        I trust my friend, not consultants … but what else can I do?

    So here I am. 11 AM, a café nearby the Kuwait Opera House meeting a stranger. He is supposed to figure out why my business is failing; why our revenue has not grown in two years. As I approach, Loaay takes a step towards me. This is it. He stands tall, extends a welcoming smile; firm handshake. I glance at my watch; hope this isn’t going to be another hour I can’t get back.

       After a couple of pleasantries Loaay urges me to talk. Reluctantly I tell him about mgrandfather; how he started the fabric business sixty-three years ago. I picture him now as I explain how the business grew from one small store to seven stores across Kuwait, with dealers in select neighbouring markets. I feel the pride lifting me and … then … slowly deflate when I realise that I could be the one to lose the business. I take a tentative sip of my coffee. I’m the CEO. I know that almost 90% of family owned businesses cease to exist beyond the third generation. It could end with me. I picture my son, what will I tell him? I slowly lower the cup onto the saucer.

      "We are still profitable,” I say, muted – like a confession, “but I can’t work out why our revenue hasn't grown since 2016.” Loaay watches me but doesn’t speak. “I examined every department, operations to marketing, I couldn’t find an explanation or an opportunity,” I say. Again no response. So now I talk about my fears of the next financial crisis and that I don’t want my children to talk about how the family once owned a large high end upholstery and dishdasha fabrics manufacturing business. I falter; take another sip of coffee, avoiding Loaay's gaze.

   Finally Loaay speaks. But how can he help? What does he know about my business? “The next financial crisis is nothing but another business challenge,” he says. “If not that, it will be something else.” He has a point. I don't know why I was thinking of it as the next great flood. The media? “Have you spoken to customers?” he asks. “Our customer satisfaction and NPS surveys didn’t trigger any alarms.”

  “Surveys reflect current performance, they don’t reveal why customers buy, what’s important to them and where the real opportunities may be.” I reply, “That’s the job of our marketing team.” Loaay’s gaze turns to the waitress. He asks me to look at her. “Salem, this waitress will go to that table over there, watch her—now.” So I do; I watch as she calmly walks to the table just as he said. She talks to the customers. I don’t hear what she says, but I see the way they smile as she walks away. So she can read the customers’ body language? Knew they were missing something and immediately engaged? Okay. When I glance back, Loaay says, “So what can you take away from that and apply to your business?”

        I slowly sip the last of my coffee, he waits for my response. I am not sure how to answer, so I fumble with a spoon, look away. I guess he senses my apprehension and politely excuses himself; giving me more time to think. Which I do; glancing once more to see the waitress return to the table in the corner.

     A few moments later Loaay is back, I think I know the answer. I smile, tell him “You are good.” He is. “I need to focus on customers,” I say. He nods. “By observing their attitudes and behaviours we can figure out their needs and develop new products and services that can generate extra profit.” With a smile and a handshake, Loaay says, “Exactly. You are good too.” I realise that I looked everywhere but where it counts. I can’t depend on marketing alone. I need to drive this forward. As excited as I am I wonder if I have the knowhow. That’s when Loaay leans across. “There’s more to it than observations and research, we will explore it together.” I see why Abdullah recommended him. “You’re in good hands. My style is collaborative and I believe that you and your team can learn a lot from this experience. There are multiple ways I can get involved, which we can discuss next week.”

      As I get ready to leave, Loaay asks me to organise a casual session for staff, outside the office under three conditions: First, no management. Second, only one employee per department. Third, every voice matters; no mockery of any idea. “The purpose of the meeting,” he says, “is for them to address the obstacles each department faces and to collaboratively suggest ways to solve them.” We never tried this before. We shake hands and he says he’ll stay as he’s waiting to meet a managing director of an accounting firm to help them figure out how they can differentiate themselves from cheap competitors. I’m grateful I’m not in that industry.

    How short an hour is – and yet how much can change. I think about my son and smile.

  The event described above is based on Loaay Ahmed’s memory of various real clients' situations. However, the location and names of all clients discussed in this short story above have been changed. In addition, the nature of the clients’ industries have been changed out of respect for client’s confidentiality. Any resemblance to persons living or dead resulting from changes to names or identifying details is entirely coincidental and unintentional.

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