On Episode 5 of Up Right & Better, Jill Nelson, founder and CEO of business communications company Ruby Receptionists, shares with us her guiding principles for developing an employee-centric culture that in turn makes her company one of the most awarded in Portland!
Kristen: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. Today’s guest is someone I had the opportunity to meet a few months ago at a women led un-conference here in Portland. I’m absolutely honored to have her on the podcast. From humble beginnings 14 years ago, Jill Nelson has grown Ruby Receptionist into a four-time winner of Fortune Magazine’s Top Five Best Small Companies to Work For, and a Portland’s Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Company and Oregon recipient for the past nine years. Today Ruby’s 400 employees provide friendly, live receptionist service to more than 6,000 small businesses throughout North America.
In addition to her own entrepreneurial endeavors, Jill has been recognized for their contributions to Oregon’s business and technology communities, receiving the Technology Association of Oregon’s 2017 Technology Executive of the Year Award, as well as EO’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Jill has served her management philosophy of incenting, inspiring, and empowering employees with global brand such as Mercedes Benz, Leroy Merlin of Europe, and Chiavi of France. Her vision for Ruby includes a workplace where employees are excited to come each day, and inspire to learn, grow, and connect with others. Join me in welcoming Jill Nelson.
Good morning everybody. I’m so exited to have Jill Nelson on the podcast today. Jill is the founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists. Welcome, Jill.
Jill: Thank you very much, and thank you so much for having me, Kristen.
Kristen: I’m really excited to have you here. I have been greeted at least five times here. I’ve been offered water so many times, and the first 10 minutes of just being here, I watched probably five or six employees just have all kinds of cool conversation with each other, and kind of wanted to listen in to what they were talking about, but today is Administrative Professional’s Day, and they’re all dressed up in 40s, 50s garb, and just having so much fun. I was telling Jill earlier you don’t see that in probably five or six tech offices a week, and I don’t see that kind of energy and joy so something is working here for sure.
Jill: Something is working and thank you for noticing. I feel it too, and I feel really grateful coming in every day. I actually have heard anecdotes of people posting on Facebook, or commenting to their co-workers that they wake up and they go, “Oh, I’m in a bad mood. I can’t wait to get to work, and everything will be better.” [crosstalk 00:03:01] No, it’s not a normal thing.
Kristen: If we spend eight, nine hours a day at work, five days a week, sometimes on the weekends, that’s the majority of our life, right? Why should you come to work to hate what you do and not enjoy that life?
Can you just briefly a little bit about how you started the company and what got you to here today?
Jill: Absolutely, okay. So it has been a long journey and it’s been fourteen plus year adventure of learning and having fun and getting our knees scraped and picking ourselves up and moving forward. But years and years ago, the original idea was to do a traditional, I guess you’d call ’em co-working spaces now, but executive suites with the smaller offices, to support small business with shared secretarial and shared receptionist services that go along with the suite. And I wanted to do it in the Pearl District, because at the time, the Pearl District was up and coming. But I had no money and no business experience, so I couldn’t find a landlord willing to build out a space, so it really was just sort of, I go, “Well, okay, if I can’t do that what can I do with the resources I had?”
So really tinkering with the virtual concept and it just went from there. But originally, the business was about just helping small businesses with their workload. That’s the mindset. Over time and I learn it over and over again, really realize that what it is we’re selling, we are helping small businesses grow through keeping alive those personal connections, those meaningful connections that seem to be increasingly lost and increasingly yearned for as we go through this virtual technology age. And so, that mission of what it is, what it is we’re even providing to our customers, drives, I think that drives both a natural attention to our own culture and who we attract here, we attract people that really identify at their core. They live for their relationships they have with others. And that sort of feeds in and of itself and is part of what makes things magic here.
Kristen: That’s amazing. I appreciate that. And I think, we’re going to get into culture at Ruby quite a bit, in just a minute, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is I heard about Ruby’s culture and learning and development and onboarding, kind of through the grapevine, which should tell you something, that if it’s going through the town, someone else is telling you about it, and it’s getting twice removed, three times removed, that there’s something amazing happening here.
When we were talking earlier, you shared with me the onboarding guide and the culture book that new hires get. And there was a planning pyramid in there. Can you talk a little bit about how you have prioritized culture and business planning, strategic planning, and melded those together as a business owner?
Jill: Absolutely. So, the planning pyramid that you’re speaking of, we actually took it from the Rockefeller Habits, it’s Verne Harnish, he has a company called Gazelles that’s about helping entrepreneurs grow at a very rapid pace. And it was really through that book and sort of hearing him speak that I understood that really successful businesses, they have a very well-defined mission. They know why they get up in the morning and they have a clearly defined set of values that drive what it is that they do, that define their decision making purposes, or just decision-making actions. So the planning pyramid, and you can probably Google it and find an example, starts with at the foundation, is those mission and vision values, where it is you’re trying to take the company with your why and doing the things that come from your values. And so, when we go into our annual planning session and define our annual goals and then we attend our quarterly strategic planning session to define what outcomes we’re trying to achieve this quarter and even breaking it down to what ends up at the top of this pyramid is that action items, they start by looking at our mission. Really, every single action ties back to our why.
So even as we today go, our technology’s really evolving and what it is we provide our customers has moved beyond us providing those human interactions, even as we add technology features, we use our mission to drive which features to add. Like, does it help our customers connect with their customers? Then yes, that’s a feature we want. If it doesn’t? Then …
Kristen: Not so much.
Kristen: Yeah. So, I want to sort of modify something I wanted to ask you about, I wanted to ask about the strategic trade-offs that you made. But the reality is that you’ve really grown up in the business. This is your first big business, right?
Kristen: And you mentioned to me, this is what you’ve known. So the question of strategic trade-offs maybe isn’t the right question anymore. It’s about how you decided that this was important, that you were going to actually spend money on investing in employees, in culture. You have a wow station that you can talk about a little bit.
How did you decide to make those investments?
Jill: Yeah. Well, I think … It started with realizing our value proposition was to our customers. And it really was about how we make a difference in their business by being there for them, by being kind to their callers, by really seeking out how can we delight and make someone happy, how can we help them in whatever it is that they want to do. And so, when we got clear about that’s what it is that we wanted to do for our customers, it became very clear that to be successful, we had to attract the type of people that went, “The idea of helping someone, that’s what I live for! If I can someone’s bad day into a good day, that’s a day well spent for me.”
And so the realization of that’s who we want to attract made us understand that we need to live that most importantly inside and outside and so, how we want our receptionists to treat our callers and our customers, we want to model that for them, too. And so if we’re a company of first impressions, we want to give them the first day of their work at Ruby a day to remember, a day to really make that wonderful impression. And then, the other piece of it, too, I think there’s a lot of empowerment through as we scale and grow and maintained our culture or perhaps even strengthen it, it is about really empowering those people. Because I contend the smiling happy people that you met today? They’re in every workplace. It’s just, are they confined by the policies and scripts and rules that a workplace has set on them? Or have they been empowered by the understanding like, you invited me to be at Ruby because of who I am as a person and because of how I care and I know I’m empowered to step outside of a normal workday and bring my own contribution. Whether it’s doing something special for a customer that nobody asked me to do, or bringing my passion for knitting and starting a knitting group at Ruby, it’s understood here that all of those things are welcome.
And so I think that all plays into it and the more we do it, the more we see the beautiful rewards, and the more we go, “Let’s do more of that,” and here we are.
Kristen: Yeah, so. I want to … There are like three questions I’d like to follow up with that. But I’m gonna just pick one. The stepping outside of the policies and rules the norms of, oh well this is not how we normally behave is really interesting to me. There’s, you probably heard a joke in HR that we hire really great people and then we don’t let them do the work.
Unfortunately, that’s really common, right? We set up our workplaces to maybe have this beautiful façade, we have these beautiful values, and then there are things that we are implicitly rewarding and punishing. But I don’t know that I’m seeing that here at Ruby. I’m seeing that you are explicitly rewarding going outside of the bounds to serve a customer. Can you think of any examples of that, just off the top of your head, that have gotten to the wow station?
Jill: Yeah, well, and I’ll talk about the wow station. I’m pretty passionate about this subject because I do think that when you have the right people here, you want to do empower them and encourage them. But as you grow, and even with success, I think it’s really tempting to want to create rules. Because all of a sudden, you’ve had success, and one bad thing, a customer might burn you by not paying their invoice or something. And then all of a sudden, you’re creating new rules that ruin the empower for everybody and ruin the customer experience. We call it railing against the 10%. It’s probably the 1%. The one percent of customers who aren’t to act in good faith, we say goodbye to them, we happily refund their money, and then we do not make new rules for the 99% of customers. The same goes for employees.
Not every employee is excited to get up and come to work at Ruby and you know, honor the trusting environment, and we get that, that’s okay, and hopefully they’ll find their way, but we invite them to no longer be here. But we don’t change the rules for everybody else. And really, sometimes it can be scary, especially for HR professionals, who probably get inundated with cases of they’re trying to protect the company from a legal standpoint, so it’s a little bit more squishy to be like, “No, we’re not going to change the rules.” But I do think that’s one of the things that you have to understand is to not succumb to the 1% that ruins it for everybody. You know, just understand that occasionally you get burned, and then you go on. And [inaudible 00:14:08] better.
The Wow Station is a physical thing as well as a concept. But we inspire our employees to step outside of normal operations and listen to our customers, connect with them and find ways to connect. And when they do, they’re invited to send anything from a note card or a video to even a present of really any dollar value of anything that their imagination comes up with. And we even provide a pre-paid Amazon account that everyone has access to, they can buy anything they want, no questions asked. So, there’s been some really amazing stories that have come out of it.
One long time example was that a receptionist in her first week at Ruby took a call for one of our attorney clients, and he had been in a car accident. And it was their car insurance company following up on a claim. And nobody was injured, but she was unable to reach the attorney to put the call through, so she took a message. Life goes on. A couple days later, a package shows up for that customer and it’s from our brand new receptionist, her name’s Whitney, she’s our top salesperson now. And it was an emergency roadside repair kit with a note that said, “I heard you were in an accident. I hope everyone’s okay and I hope you never need this again, but just in case.” You know, here’s this. And he was just so really, it brightened his day and he thought it was so thoughtful. And he ended up writing a big post to another legal forum, which is great, and it got us press but it also served as inspiration to other people. So that’s an example of some, but we have tons and tons …
And also, you know, talking about the 1%, occasionally, because really anything goes, occasionally you might look at something and go, “Uh! Was that really appropriate?” For example, I’ll just tell you. Like, somebody sent bedsheets to a customer once. I don’t know what that conversation looked like, but I’m sure that customer could have been like, “Oh! That’s so thoughtful,” or, “That’s really kind of odd.” But you just kind of life, and you go, that’s just what can happen and you try to provide great examples going forward.
Kristen: Well, exactly. And people’s best judgment is informed by the culture that they’re working in, right? If you don’t make a habit of sending bedroom items to customers, then it probably won’t happen again.
That’s amazing. I’ve never heard of another company doing something like that. And I love that that is a physical manifestation of the way that people work with each other here and they work with their customers that Ruby has.
I also really appreciate the thoughts you have around not succumbing to that one person. I think we live in a very reactionary field, and human resources, even research and development, is pretty reactionary. You know, somebody comes to us and says, “Ooh, my salesperson isn’t doing this, I think we need to train them of that,” and the reality is that maybe that salesperson isn’t having a good week and we need to figure out what’s going on here. It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, you know? So there could be a lot of things behind that. Even behind the 1%.
I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about some honors that you’ve received this year. You received the 2017 Oregon Tech Executive of the Year. Congratulations.
Jill: Thank you very much. Super excited about that.
Kristen: Yeah, that’s a huge honor. What do you think led you to receiving that award?
Jill: Well, I would say that I actually have a little inside intel that our very, very consistent and strong growth rate year over year, we’ve grown double-digits, I think our average growth rate over the last four, five years has been 40%, but there has not been a year in existence where we haven’t grown. And we’ve taken a pretty traditional model and really created a technology platform that allows it to scale and be more useful for an increasingly large section of very small businesses.
Really, providing a mission-critical service. But I would also contend that we have, one of the big attraction points is we’ve created livable wage jobs that have actually turned into careers in technology. So, we’re really proud that as we’ve grown and changed, our engineering department is made up of senior programmers for sure, but also, junior programmers, one that started as as a receptionist, our QA people started out as receptionists. We have people in product, people in UX, technical support with our telephony, people in rules there that started out as receptionists, so I think it’s this … We’re additive, we’re not taking from, we’re actually bring careers to the community. And I think that was a contributing factor and so I’m super, super proud.
Kristen: I hadn’t read that, and I didn’t know that, and so, I don’t sit on the board [inaudible 00:19:45]. I mean that’s a pretty, you said traditional, you’ve taken traditional jobs that might not lead to a career in tech and that feels, I don’t want to get into robots and automation and all that right now, but in a time right now where everyone feels like the human is going to go away, and things are going to be automated and taken away and their connection is going to be gone, you’ve really created a pipeline to answer some of the challenges that people are afraid of.
Jill: That’s right.
Kristen: That’s amazing, congratulations. The last couple of things I want to talk about are sort of rubber meets the road type of things. We talked earlier about the choices you’ve made to invest in the business, but I want to talk about kind of physical things. You, I’ve heard such good things about the onboarding program here, we were talking about it just a little bit before. And there are, as I look around the office, there are notebooks, mugs, flowers, all kinds of beautiful physical things that cost money. And I think the pressure in tech companies, especially, but in any company today, is to cut costs wherever you can.
How have you decided to invest in experiences like onboarding and other employee engagement experiences?
Jill: Well, and I would contend that we too try to be very economical in how we use our resources. But what it is that we do and our brand, it’s incredibly important to infuse that throughout the day. And we at Ruby talk about the touchpoints. Like everything that you see that has to do with Ruby, whether it’s the physical environment or our people getting in the elevator, that communicates something about our brand. So that remains very important, but also that experience for our employees. We are selling a human experience so we have to create an environment that brings out the best in all of us. The onboarding thing, I’m super passionate about too, because we are also a business of first impressions, and you know the saying, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.
But that employee’s first day, how much it sets the tone, not just for how they feel that they’re treated by their employer but actually what they feel that they’re going to be expected to do, too. So if you come into your first day, and your computer is already set you, and you have a lovely gift with a note from your supervisor welcoming you and a present and your computer already has all of the applications that you are going to be using in your workday and someone’s already asked you if you’re left-handed or right-handed and what kind of ergonomic keyboard you have and you’re ready to go? That also sets the tone of what you’re going to be expected to bring in your position, too.
So, it is a great investment. I think … And we have so much fun with it. And it gets better and better all of the time. And when you’re growing really rapidly, that risk of … You know, the people that have been here for years have a very, very strong sense of what we’re about. But since we grow rapidly, there’s always a strong percentage of employees that are relatively new. And we want that culture to continue to thrive. So the more we can sort of firehouse them with our Ruby Experience in the first few days, weeks, and months, the more that protects our culture going forward, too.
Kristen: Wow, that’s amazing, I think … It doesn’t just boil down to cutting costs or making sure that it’s economic or makes economic sense, but it is the concept that your customers come first. But in order to have that be case, your employees actually have to come first. Which is actually a surprisingly hard argument to make to a lot of businesses.
Jill: I do feel, too … I know the concept of core values in a business is pretty mainstream. I find it hard to say, “Oh, we have these core values that apply to our customers, but they don’t apply to this other segment.” Your values are your values. You live them consistently. [crosstalk 00:24:22] I think that that plays into it, too.
Kristen: It almost certainly goes into it. Well, Jill, thank you so much for taking time with us today. The work that you’ve done with Ruby and the team that you’ve brought on is just amazing and it’s very obvious that you’re some place with this company.
Jill: Oh, thank you very much for the kinds words, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast.
Kristen: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, grow better.