Lessons Learned: Ruby’s 15 Years

By Jill Nelson
Ruby Receptionists Birthday

June 2, 2018, marks 15 years in business for Ruby® Receptionists and I can hardly believe it. I’m incredibly grateful for the amazing customers and employees who brought us to this milestone! To celebrate our anniversary, I’m sharing some pivotal lessons I have learned during each of these wonderful years. Whether you’re running a business, prepping to launch a startup, or dreaming of an entrepreneurial future, I hope these reflections help you on your journey!

2003: Great service really does win business.
When I started Ruby, I really did think we were here to help small businesses by taking an essential task (answering and handling phone calls) off their plates. Having been a receptionist myself in a former career, I thought being nice, listening, and doing whatever we possibly could to provide a helpful experience was simply table stakes to answering phone calls. But our customers spoke early and often—they let us know the Ruby caller experience was making a difference in their business’ success. They stuck around and referred new business to us. Today, customer referrals remain the top source of customers for us, and it brings me great personal joy to know we are helping other businesses grow by keeping alive that personal caller experience.

Bonus lesson: Don’t put your coffee machine, your microwave, and your telecommunications server on the same circuit.

2004: Cash and financial management is a matter of survival.
As much as we were off to the races with our WOW-worthy service, those first couple of years trying to get to scale were rough, and there were a few payroll runs that left mere pennies in our checking account. Had we waited for an outside bookkeeper to finish doing the books to know where we stood each month, we might not be here today.

When it was a matter of business life and death, I practiced daily cash management. Managing the timing of our cash outlays, projecting our inflows, knowing our break-even points, and understanding the difference between income on the books and positive cash flow were all part of this rigorous, business-saving process. Ruby #2, Paddy McCaffrey-Allen, still teases me today about my passionate plea to not buy “even one pencil!” I know many of you are in that cash-critical ramp-up stage and rely on us to deliver value that exceeds our price. Our recent phone number feature additions were designed to help you eliminate a phone bill, and we are working to add more customized packages this year to more closely match your needs.

2005: Ask your employees for feedback.
You might know Ruby as an award-winning employer of choice, having been recognized nationally for years as a great place to work. I confess that wasn’t always the case. It took us until year three to conduct our first ever employee survey. I was so nervous! As a small business owner, the thought of someone not feeling valued at my company felt personal. But at the urging of an employee, I did it. And, while it was hard to read some of the comments, it served as the beginning of the journey to becoming the employer we are today.

The big takeaway from the survey was to regularly make sure each employee knew how they were making a difference—in the lives of our callers and customers, and in the success of Ruby. And the impact of employees who feel valued in the work they do? Strong employee retention and an aligned workforce fired up to deliver on the mission.

2006: Surprise! Other business owners are going through the same challenges that we are.
Being a business owner can be a lonely experience. We bear the weight of the success of our organization and the livelihood of our employees. When faced with challenges, it’s not always appropriate to confide in our staff, and our friends with stable, paying jobs don’t seem to relate. Don’t you sometimes feel that someone, somewhere, has already figured out the solution to the problem you’re facing? That was me. But in 2006, I found my peer group by joining the Entrepreneurs Organization, and it was a game-changer. They serve as an informal business advisory board, and getting an up-close look at some of the challenges other business owners face means I get to learn from their experiences.

Bonus lesson: Put your domain name on auto-renew!

2007: KPIs and company dashboards help ensure your customers, employees, and financial stakeholders are all being considered.
If you are ever in Portland and come by for the Ruby tour, ask someone to show you our performance dashboards. It surprises many that a company so focused on people and service is out front with data measurement and performance benchmarking. But here’s the thing: our dashboards are a critical tool to ensure we are delivering what we intend to our customers and our employees. In 2007, KPIs and dashboards were foreign to us. It was only after a desperate plea by our overworked receptionists that I dug into the data. There, I discovered we had grown our customer count far faster than our employees to support it, and our service and employee happiness were suffering.

Today, our dashboards are built with a “balanced scorecard” approach, measuring performance, service quality, customer happiness, and employee happiness all on the same page. When red, our KPIs aren’t meant to be punitive, but just like the warning lights on your car’s dashboard, a red KPI signals that a key function might be out of whack, and this alert can save us from a breakdown.

Bonus lesson: Mistakes are the fertile ground of innovation!

2008: Another reminder that customers and businesses alike truly value personal connection and will support businesses that make them feel heard.
Ahhhhh, 2008. I’m guessing many of you have your own make-or-break stories of the great economic downturn of our lifetime. And since this is a 15-year celebration piece, you can guess how it turned out for us.

But back then, I truly didn’t know if Ruby was going to survive. The Dow was on its crazy decline towards a loss in value of 65%, and our economic outlook was downright scary. The question I ended up asking was not, “how are we going to survive,” but, “If we’re going down, how do we want to be remembered?” Turns out, the answer to both questions was the same: that in this intensely stressful time for business owners and employees alike, in an era where cost-cutting measures all but eliminated good customer service in other companies, we lived to make a difference in the lives of others through kind, caring, personal interactions. Our employees rallied, and we stepped up our service to find ways to show our customers that we were on their team, that their success was our success, and that there would always be a friendly voice on the other end of the line to help them get through the day.

2009: Know what you stand for and surround yourself with people who are aligned with that mission.
The strategy of 2008 serves as the pivotal lesson of our 15-year life. We grew our customer count 30% in 2009. We took those lessons, and from them, built our formal mission, vision, and values. You can read them here. Today, those guiding principles help us attract and retain employees. They help us make business decisions. And they help us stay focused on delivering our customers the service they expect and deserve.

2010: Every touchpoint matters.
One day, as I was deeply engaged with whatever was on my computer screen, I was interrupted by a knock on my open office door. I looked up to find not a fellow Ruby, but an acquaintance and potential customer standing in the doorway. “Funny,” he said. “The receptionist company has no receptionist. I wandered around your office to eventually find you without so much as a ‘hello!’”

Ouch! That day, I realized your brand and your vision don’t just show up in the service you provide. It shows up everywhere: how you greet people in your office, how your website looks, how your physical office looks, and even how you and your employees show up in the community. Longtime Ruby and customer experience evangelist Christina Burns, our VP of Customer Success, wrote an awesome e-book on how to ensure every communication across many of your touchpoints are delivering a great experience. You can find that here.

2011: Investing in technology is critical to delivering service at scale.
In 2011, we launched ROS, the software that allows our Ruby receptionists to deliver our uniquely personal caller experience. Back in the day, we had to rely on our fading memories and charming personalities to deliver great service. But we all know that has limits. ROS enables us greet callers with the right time of day no matter the time zone of our customers, and whispers in our receptionists’ ears to ensure we are pronouncing your company names properly. Today, it’s integrated with your calendars and contact lists through our mobile app, so we know just how to treat your callers, when and where to transfer callers, and what information to gather when you’re not taking calls.

Bonus lesson: Switching your entire tech platform and physically moving your business all in three weeks’ time can wreak havoc on employee morale.

2012: Incent, Inspire, and Empower your employees to deliver your mission at scale.
This blog post sums up our employee engagement philosophy perfectly!

2013: The achievement of a long-term goal can be accomplished with clear metrics, a path, and a team who is aligned and focused.
Back in 2008, our team did a vision exercise: What would Ruby look like at 10x our current size? What would our culture look like? Our offering? How many employees would we have? Customers? What would our jobs look like? Our benefits? The vision exercise was followed by another exercise to explore what it might take to achieve that vision. Those two exercises created an excitement towards achieving the vision of growing 10x, and the strategy and execution path to get there. Then, we worked the plan and achieved a goal that five years earlier felt like a fantasy. For those of you who like the sounds of this, Verne Harnish’s Mastering the Rockefeller Habits remains my favorite small business strategic planning resource book.

2014: Choose your investors wisely.
In 2014, I decided to explore selling part of the company to an outside fund. While we had many suitors, I was uber-paranoid about what might happen to our culture, our customers, and our people. So, I resisted my natural full-speed-ahead entrepreneurial tendencies and took the time to really get to know the interested parties and how they operated. In the end, the decision was much more than financial. It hinged on the belief that the future of Ruby—its customers, its services, and its employees—was in better hands with the right financial partner (Updata) than if we had continued to go it alone.

2015: The right investor can provide WAAAAY more than capital.
Wow. A whole new world opens up when you have the backing of a reputable investment firm. Connections with other CEOs. Access to data benchmarking. Generous access to expertise. The ability to attract senior talent. Even an ear to listen to your biggest challenges. I took a bet that Ruby would be in better hands with UpData than if we had continued to go it alone, but I really didn’t know the extent of it. Taken with the lesson of 2014, the right investor can bring far more than just growth capital.

2016 Just when you thought you had it all figured all out, you find yourself at the beginning of a learning curve.
Some lessons are more humbling than others. 2016’s lesson was one of those. I had to learn how to lead all over again. Ruby had grown and changed, and I was still leading like the scrappy entrepreneur that got us through the early years—namely by being in everyone’s business. But as you grow, and you are lucky enough to hire people that are smarter than you in their respective disciplines, that’s a recipe for watching talent walk out the door. One of the great thought leaders on culture-powered businesses, Paul Spiegelman, nudged me to tell this story on a pretty big platform. You can read the story here.

Bonus Lesson: That’s OK.

2017: The business phone call is more important than ever.
I’ve been asked more than once if I ever imagined running a business with hundreds of employees back when I started Ruby. And truthfully, back in 2003, I wasn’t even sure the phone call would be a means of communication 15 years later. But here we sit, with business phone calls not on the decline, but on a rapid ascent—driven by the rise in mobile search and an “instant answer” culture. And phone calls aren’t just on the rise; they’re more important than ever. One study reported that 80% of callers are likely to become repeat customers after a positive phone experience. With phone calls having the best success rate for converting leads into customers, I can say with confidence that the phone call is the most important touchpoint of the buyer customer journey.

2018: We’re just getting started.
Through the ups and downs, the millions of phone calls, and the thousands of businesses served, my passion for helping small business succeed through meaningful human interaction is as strong as ever. You are the driver of job growth and the backbone of the American economy. You’re where we go when we want to do business with someone who cares. Thank you for your business. Here’s to the next 15!

The article can be found here.