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John Jantsch: This episode of The Duct Tape Marketing podcast is brought to you by Klaviyo. Klaviyo is a platform that helps growth-focused e-commerce brands drive more sales with super targeted, highly relevant email, Facebook, and Instagram marketing.
Stuff like payroll and benefits are hard. That’s why I switched to Gusto and to help support the show Gusto is offering our listeners an exclusive, limited time deal. You sign up for their payroll service today you’ll get three months free once you run your first payroll. Just go to Gusto.com/tape.
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Jill Nelson. She is the founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists, a company she started back in 2003 and has seen double digit growth every year since it’s inception. Jill, thanks for joining me.
Jill Nelson: John, thank you so much for having me on your show. I’m a big fan.
John Jantsch: Well, I love speaking with entrepreneurs and I really love speaking with entrepreneurs that have just blown up. Tell me how Ruby got started.
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Well, you know, like many of the listeners out there I just had this idea that I was just determined to get out there but the original idea was something different than what Ruby is today. I wanted to do what I guess we would now call a coworking space, like the We Works of the world, but it was more old-fashioned and it was executive suites with small private offices but shared receptionists, shared secretarial, if you will, shared copier services.
Yeah. It was in a part of Portland that was up and coming and I always loved serving small businesses. It was just a thing I grew up with. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any business experience so I couldn’t find a landlord willing to build out class A office space on my behalf.
Just took that and noodled on, “Well, if I can’t do that what can I do with the small resources that I have?” Just really got fascinated with that important phone piece and started thinking about how I could still deliver receptionist service to small businesses even if they weren’t sitting right next to us.
Went searching for an off-the-shelf software solution and hodge-podged a phone system together that worked with it and in 2003 launched. Along the way lots and lots of lessons learned and here we are today as Ruby with really a platform that at its core is the same as it was day one, help small businesses grow through creating a great first impression for their callers but leveraging the on-demand economy and the technology tools that we have today to be even more valuable.
John Jantsch: Fast forward to today, I mean, 500 employees, thousands and thousands of customers, all kinds of accolades but it’s interesting because when you started this even in 2003 … I’ve been in business longer than that. Answering services have been around effectively forever but they were always pretty cruddy. What do you think you did that changed the game?
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Well, first, I actually never even thought about Ruby as an answering service from day one. From day one, I was really thinking about how to solve a problem for small business. In my mind back then I presumed, “Of course everybody would answer the phone. That’s table steaks for winning new customers and great customer service but it must be really challenging when you’re wearing many hats as a small business owner.”
I really from day one was thinking about how could I really be of service to small businesses throughout the day? Ruby was never intended to be a backup service. It was never intended to be a catchall messaging thing. It was to be a part of that small businesses’ team and so understanding what small businesses needed in order to win business in the day just … It was there from day one.
The software was different. I had been a receptionist. I knew how calls went. From day one, we intended to sound just like we were in our small businesses’ office. In fact, there’s stories of our customers’ customers bringing cookies for the receptionist because we were so integrated into their day and sounded just like we were right there that they literally thought Ruby was a real person that they felt propelled to bake cookies for.
John Jantsch: I’d say the really key ingredient there was the whole different point of view. You weren’t just offering some service to fill a gap. Your whole point of view was, “We wanted to be a part of that business.” I think that that … I mean, I’m sure that that led to who you hired and how you trained and [crosstalk]
Jill Nelson: Absolutely.
John Jantsch: That’s a different game really.
Jill Nelson: It really is. Again, the original premise was we were going to solve a problem for small businesses, which is like how to just free up their day, but it was actually very early on that they told us that the value proposition … That was a secondary thing but it was really we were winning business for them. We were literally hearing customers say … Their callers would say, “Well, I’m giving you my business because you answered the phone and you were nice to me.”
Sometimes that’s really all it takes because your competitors aren’t doing that. Also, we heard, “Gosh, I really care about my customers. I can trust you to give them that special care and I have peace of mind to relax and go about my day.”
We know small business owners, just like I am still today, many small business owners start their business because they have a craft that they’re passionate about and they feel really compelled to serve their customers in a better way than perhaps they did when they worked for another company.
I think pride of customer service is pretty prevalent among small business owners. We really understood very early on from what they told us that that’s what we were helping them with, not just a catchall like you would think of us as a backup overnight answering service.
John Jantsch: How did you get clients in the early days? What did your marketing look like?
Jill Nelson: Well, again, this is some time ago. I was a very inexperienced business owner. This was the first business, the one and only business I’ve started, and I had been a salesperson early in my first job out of college and I hated it.
My idea was, “I hate selling so I really need to find customers and make them so happy with us that they never leave us and they tell other people about us.” That was the whole idea.
Then finding them really was a wonderful time in the course of the internet history. Google AdWords had just launched. I had stumbled across it late night doing research on how to market to customers, experimented with some 10 cent clicks, and had some people from the East Coast calling us before we even launched our business.
Actually because of that we launched as a national service day one. The original idea because I was thinking of it as this executive suites thing was going to be local. And so Google pay-per-click got us launched and I remember talking to the first customer ever who I believe is still with us today. I need to double-check our records but last I heard they were. It’s a little software company in New York City. I remember them asking how many customers we had. I didn’t want to be dishonest but I said something like, “Well, we’re working towards 20.” Something like that.
John Jantsch: [inaudible] as soon as you sign up we’ll have one, right?
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Exactly.
John Jantsch: All right.
Jill Nelson: Later on we let him know. We let him know he was literally our first.
John Jantsch: What does your marketing look like now? I see full page ads and things like that. You have a full-blown marketing agency inside your organization.
Jill Nelson: That’s right. That’s right. But still always learning. There are some things that don’t change and today just like day one, still our largest source of new customers is from word of mouth referrals and still we’re really about keeping the customers that we have happy and …
One thing I will say we have learned there, it’s not just about being responsive and making them happy and being nice to them. It’s really about insuring we’re driving real business value. If we say we’re going to help your business grow let’s make sure that the service is doing everything we can to help your business grow. That’s been an interesting shift.
Learning to engage with our customers and marketing has shifted probably like many of your listeners that we are actively engaging with them and really trying to just share some of our own expertise certainly around being a receptionist and giving a great phone experience as much as possible and just engaging with our customers even before they’re ready, helping them when we can and when they’re ready hopefully they’ll think of Ruby when they are ready to have an outsourced platform to handle their company and receptionist service.
John Jantsch: Wouldn’t it be great if in your business all you had to do was the stuff you love, the reason you started the business, and not all that administrative stuff like payroll and benefits? That stuff is hard. Especially when you’re a small business.
Now I’ve been delegating my payroll for years to one of those big corporate companies. I always felt like a little tiny fish but now there is a much better way. I’ve switched over to Gusto and it is making payroll and benefits and HR easy for the modern small business.
You no longer have to be a big company to get great technology, great benefits, and great service to take care of your team. To help support the show, Gusto is offering our listeners an exclusive limited time deal. If you sign up today you’ll get three months free once you run your first payroll. Just go to Gusto.com/tape.
In the time you’ve been in business, certainly the time I’ve been in business, the phone itself has changed. Not just the technology but really how it’s used in business. Obviously it used to be you had a whole bunch of phones plugged into a whole bunch of walls and people sitting at desks and now people are all over the world working for businesses.
In a lot of ways I’m sure that that’s driven some of what you’re doing but how have you managed or how do you foresee managing changing ways that people want to connect with companies and different technologies that are out there? I have 30 year olds and they rarely want to talk on the phone even it seems like.
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Yeah.
John Jantsch: What do you do to stay abreast?
Jill Nelson: Yeah. A couple of things on that. The world is changing. You know, way back then I always was like, “I don’t know. Will the phone call be around in 15 years time?” I’m actually more surprised than I am not that here we are sitting talking on if the phone call is actually more relevant than ever, the internet and the mobile devices, click-to-call, are actually driving more phone calls and where we used to use phone calls for everything they now are really your best source, I guess your best channel, of new customer acquisition. Something like that 40% of inbound calls to businesses are customers ready to buy.
Then you talk about the on demand economy. The people want what they want and they want it now. That click-to-call and making sure that you’re there to catch that business at that moment of opportunity is really important and then you talked about the mobile … Everyone is going mobile.
Our mobile app that works with our service that is integrated with our customers calendars and contacts so we know who they know and we know whether or not to put calls through and our phone number travels with them and they can make calls from their mobile phone and have it go out their business caller ID and they can send and receive text messages on their business number that we provide.
We’re really helping our customers be more mobile that way but we’re also very excited to announce … I think this will be the first place I am publicly announcing that we have acquired a very aligned customer-service centric human connection-based chat company because we know that while phone calls are still the most important touchpoint to drive new customers you want to be there for your customers, ready to communicate with them when they would like to communicate in the channel of their choice.
It’s phone call, yes, but it’s increasingly also texting and messaging and right there in your Google search results there’s all kinds of options to engage with your customers and we just want to be there for our small businesses to be able to represent them in a really human way that wins them business.
It’s a huge transition in our history. 15 years of receptionists and [inaudible] and service and now we’re branching out. We’re still at the core we create beautiful, meaningful human connections that win small businesses new customers and loyal fans but on a multitude of platforms.
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I mean, that’s such a natural evolution frankly because that behavior has just become a part of how people conduct business. I think a lot of times if somebody is going to buy a service for the first time or engage a company they want to have that phone conversation or face to face meeting. In a lot of ways I think this will be a great way for you to add additional customer service channels for your customers.
Jill Nelson: Absolutely. Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re doing and we’re very excited about it. This particular company there’s a number of chat services out there. When we surveyed our customers we know they’re leery of bots and then they’re leery of … You know, just in the same way they want to trust who is handling their phones. They want to trust whomever is representing their business.
This particular company all of their employees are here right here in the US just like all of our employees and they really, really dedicate many training hours and just keeping their employees happy. Just super aligned with Ruby. Getting to see firsthand what they do for their customers is pretty exciting. Something like 40% of their chats turn into leads.
John Jantsch: I think it’s a brilliant evolution and I think will just serve your growth quite well. Let me turn to you personally. You at the beginning of this talked about the humble beginnings and you had never really started a business and you even by your own admission kind of stumbled into where you ended up. However, you are now the CEO of what people would call, what I would call, a significant business.
Jill Nelson: Oh, thank you.
John Jantsch: How did you grow personally? Because not everybody is capable of doing that. What you did in 2003 is significantly different from what you do in 2018 I suspect. How did you grow personally into that role?
Jill Nelson: Well, I’m still growing and I’m figuring out along the way and I think one of the things that has allowed me to stay in this seat is that I’m probably at my happiest when I don’t know what I’m doing or when I’m figuring something out, I’m figuring out a puzzle, I might have a theory and I want to put it to the test. That curiosity and thirst for learning and always changing it actually has kept it exciting and so the job feels as new today as it did 15 years ago.
The biggest challenge is certainly in the leadership of people. That is an inspiring and humbling and probably my biggest challenge because I care so much about them and I want people here to feel like they’re doing something meaningful, that the time spent here is time that will help them achieve their professional and even personal goals.
Man, I do not always do it perfectly and whether it’s hiring right or getting people in the right seats and being clear about what it is you’re asking for. It’s just a constant learning experience and it’s one that I laugh about because when I wrote the business plan for Ruby I actually didn’t even consider management. I just had it in my mind like you just hire these people and you say, “Hey, I’m going to pay you this amount of money and please come at this time and do this thing” and didn’t think about training or any of that and just thought it would all magically happen exactly as I had written in the plan.
That’s been the biggest learning along the way is just working with all of the amazing array of personalities and different types of people who communicate differently and add different strengths to the mix.
John Jantsch: You know, I’ve spoken with thousands of entrepreneurs over the years and I don’t think I’ve ever heard one say, “I was such a good manager I decided to start a business.”
Jill Nelson: Yeah.
John Jantsch: It just doesn’t happen. It’s the challenge … I think it’s the biggest challenge for most entrepreneurs quite frankly.
Jill Nelson: Yeah. That doesn’t surprise me.
John Jantsch: Good segue here. How does Ruby consistently show up on the best places to work list?
Jill Nelson: Ah, thank you. Well, we could rattle off … In fact, today being just a day in which we’re all dressing up for some theme of the moment and there’s always fun to be had but that’s not really what I would point to as why we make those lists.
It really comes back to our core mission, which is we are here to keep alive those meaningful personal connections that are increasingly lost in today’s technological and virtual space, that human kindness between robots or that we’re all going a million miles an hour. It just is really special and we actually are biologically conditioned to need that.
We do feel like we’re doing meaningful work and we hire people who are like, “Yes, a day spent trying to make somebody else’s day is a day well-spent.” Then we have a set of core values that we subscribe to that help us deliver on the mission and we work really, really hard to use our mission and our values as our guiding post and deliver on those not just to our customers but our employees as well. That’s the guiding principle.
Then the fundamental system that makes it work is what we call a people-powered culture. Everybody owns culture and they are welcome to bring their passions … We have Rubies that teach fitness classes or have running clubs or knitting clubs. We have beautiful spaces but we also allow our employees to access them 24/7 so that they feel welcome to use them for whatever their extracurricular activities are and really just empower everyone across the organization to bring their own passions and things that they have to share with the community to Ruby and say yes essentially.
John Jantsch: This is probably unfair because it would have been better if I had given you some time to think about this but I’m guessing maybe you have a phone call or two or a story or two about some kind of crazy call or crazy over the top win you got for a customer or something. Any of those rattle around that you want to share?
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Well, just last week I got a LinkedIn message from a customer who said we literally saved his marriage and in two weeks of service have brought in $75,000 of new business and something else around improving his profit margins some crazy amount. He was pretty happy with us. That was really great to hear.
Yeah. Those stories come in pretty much every day. The ones that we probably take personally as wins is when somebody calls and is really frustrated. Maybe not even very happy with our customer and it’s a personal challenge to win that caller over to make them feel heard and when they call back and say, “You know what? I was having such a tough day and the receptionist was so kind. They really turned it around for me.”
We’ve even had stories where we’ve literally saved people’s lives. It’s not just helping small businesses win new business. It’s hopefully making a difference, a small difference, in the world too.
John Jantsch: You know, I bet the hardest job at your organization?
Jill Nelson: The receptionist?
John Jantsch: The receptionist. Yeah.
Jill Nelson: That’s right. That’s right.
John Jantsch: You probably have such a high bar, right?
Jill Nelson: It’s a really, really … It’s not easy. You bring compassionate and kindness and exceptional listening skills and problem solving skills and a desire to truly help every one of our customers and their callers. Yeah, when you love doing it then it’s really rewarding.
John Jantsch: Tell people how they can find out more about the various services and see if it makes sense for their business.
Jill Nelson: Yeah. Thanks so much for asking. You are always welcome to visit callruby.com. Of course, it wouldn’t be a receptionist company if I didn’t invite you to call us at 866-611-RUBY. That obviously is also on our website. If you visit our blog you can get all kinds of tips on how to deliver exceptional customer experience yourself too.
John Jantsch: I’ve been doing this show for years and I think that might be the first guest that gave their phone number on this show.
Jill Nelson: Yay. Phone calls win business. It’s true.
John Jantsch: Absolutely. Well, Jill, it was an absolute pleasure. Ruby is an awesome company.
Jill Nelson: Thank you, John. [crosstalk]
John Jantsch: Hopefully next time I’m in Portland I will stop by.
Jill Nelson: Please do. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.