If you’re a fan of the TV show, “Shark Tank,” then Barbara Corcoran is most likely a familiar face. I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara recently during my company’s annual customer engagement virtual event in May. Barbara was a perfect fit for our keynote lineup and “Boundless Customer Experience” theme given her extraordinary journey in the business world and valuable lessons learned while working her way up through the cut-throat commercial New York real estate industry.
As I talked with Barbara, which felt like a casual conversation over coffee, some key themes surfaced that demonstrated her commitment to employee engagement and her uncanny ability to identify those entrepreneurs who have what it takes to be successful. She has a knack for reading people and relies on her ‘gut’ to guide many of her decisions in business.
Reinvent When Times are Tough
Reflecting on a very difficult year, Barbara believes those who reinvented themselves were the ones who survived and thrived. When the pandemic hit, she told her entrepreneurs to make a list of where they were getting the majority of their business. With 80+ businesses in her investment portfolio, she advised her entrepreneurs that it was time to reinvent. “I talked with everyone a few days later and directed them to tear up the list as they would never see that business again.” Through this process, Barbara found that the least productive companies followed her every word while the winning entrepreneurs hit the ground running. Barbara continued, “The businesses that were the winners were the ones whose owners didn’t listen to me.”
Barbara mentioned a cake company that reinvented its business model. They opened another factory and shipping location in Las Vegas before the pandemic. Not only did they need to sustain these new cost centers, but they also needed a new direction. In addition to the new distribution center, they started delivering cakes nationwide through Gold Belly. They also added a cake-of-month to their product offering. This outside-the-box thinking and changes to their model helped the company survive this past year.
This is a good reminder for those of us in customer engagement as well. Last year at this time, my company was positioned to help our customers leverage the technology they already had. It wasn’t about selling them more solutions for new projects, it was about helping our customers navigate new challenges with solutions they already had. It didn’t require more money, training, or additional time. This strategy built trust and demonstrated that we would be there for them in the good times and bad.
Your Rate of Failure Determines Your Rate of Success
The second oldest of 10 children, competition and hard work quickly became a survival tactic for Barbara in her early years. With straight Ds in high school and college plus 20 jobs by the time she turned 23, she didn’t let failure hold her back from discovering what would become her passion—commercial real estate in one of the most competitive markets in the world, New York City.
As Barbara grew her business, she learned how to be realistic about her rate of success. “I would try five things and succeed at one,” she said. “I was willing to put in the hard work and expected to fail to get to the winner.”
Barbara also noticed a common trait in her successful Shark Tank entrepreneurs. “There’s a commonality with winners, and it’s not about how hard they work or the size of their Rolodex. It’s about how they handle failure.” According to Barbara, the only difference between those who are exceptional are the top people who take less time feeling sorry for themselves after experiencing failure. The winners popped back up, asked for more, and were quick to recover. The worse the loss, the bigger the bounce.
We’ve all experienced failure. My recent article about customer feedback is a good example. There was definitely some trial and error as we tried to find the right mix of customer feedback that went beyond surveys to better understand the customer journey. With that trial and error came failure, but through that process we learned from our successes as well as failures to ultimately improve customer experience.
The Power of Fun
Barbara learned early on in her career that success isn’t solely based on skills. She had some of the top salespeople in New York on her team who closed deal after deal, but some were toxic and not team players. It negatively impacted everyone else in the company. After cycling through a few superstars, Barbara started hiring happy people. “I don’t really look at resumes anymore because they don’t come close to telling what kind of person you’re hiring. I look for how they treat others, do they come from a happy family, how they deal with failure. I’ve found that happy people are productive people and consistently meet or exceed their goals.”
Barbara also discovered early on that the best way to drive innovation and productivity isn’t through longer workdays, the best technology, or lofty goals. Instead, she made fun a part of the company culture. She has never had a typical company Christmas party. They would throw Sweetheart parties on Valentine’s Day where team members would dress according to a theme. “Picture 1,000 people at the Waldorf, and everyone is cross-dressing. Once I got them out of their comfort zone and gave them alcohol, we had fun,” she said with a big grin. “I spent most of my time on finding fun. Whenever I gave someone a fun budget, he or she would always successfully drive it and it would have a positive result in the company.”
After creating a fun culture, word started to get out that Barbara’s company was a great place to work, and recruiting was wildly successful. This is when Barbara discovered the secret to her success. “The real estate business has some of the highest turnover of any industry. I’ve tried many things, but nothing replaces having fun if you want people to be happy, innovative, and productive. Fun is the secret sauce to innovation. Everyone contributes, feels inspired, and is invested. As a result, the whole company breeds innovation.”
For those of us in the customer service industry, hiring happy people, incorporating fun in the organization, and letting these qualities affect the interactions employees have with customers can help promote your brand in unconventional ways. I try to picture the parties Barbara throws for her team members and imagine how they felt afterward–that they are part of something fun, special, and unique. I think we can all take a few notes from Barbara’s experiences–incorporate more fun into the business, look for opportunities to celebrate your successes, and don’t take yourself too seriously.