Lessons learned from 50 years of toiling away

When I started my career, the goal was to stay with the same company for the rest of your working life. You fought to hold on to your job, even if you didn’t really like it. After a couple of bad work experiences early in my career, I found a company that treated me like a person, with appreciation and respect. Saying yes to a job at Jonar was the best decision I have made. That was 26 years ago.

I'm old. I said it. It’s out there now.

It’s been almost 50 years since I started my professional life. Things were much bigger back then - cars, hair, computers. Computer servers had their own air-conditioned offices. In bigger companies, they had their own floor. My backup tape was actually a large disk that required two hands to lift it out of the machine that stored it.

When I started my career, the goal was to stay with the same company for the rest of your working life. You fought to hold on to your job, even if you didn’t really like it. So that meant things like racial slurs and sexual harassment were not reported because vocalizing those types of grievances would likely get you fired.

After a couple of bad work experiences early in my career, I found a company that treated me like a person, with appreciation and respect. Saying yes to a job at Jonar was the best decision I have made. That was 26 years ago.

During my time at Jonar, I have worn many hats. I was hired as a jack of all trades - the person who would go into any department that required help. The two main areas where I focused, and where I have learned the most, are Customer Service and Human Resources. The world has changed a lot in the past 26 years and my experiences at Jonar and the things I have learned from those experiences give a pretty clear picture of how business has evolved.

Trial by fire in Customer Service

After starting as the jack of all trades, I became the director of the Customer Service department, and there I remained for many years. I know that I sound like a broken record, but so much has changed in how we interact with our customers over the years.

Most of our software customers were in the clothing industry. My honest experience with the apparel industry before joining Jonar was limited to the fact that I buy apparel and wear it. But my previous experience on the customer side had taught me all about ERP systems, training, needs analysis, and translating those needs to the programmers, so it wasn’t a big leap to join, and eventually lead, the Customer Service department at Jonar.

One of the many new hats that I wore was to be a trainer for our customers. I remember one of my first experiences - as a trainer on EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). This is a fancy way of saying that big companies send orders to their vendors electronically and related transactions are then sent back and forth between customers and vendors using the same technology. So, when I arrived at the office of my first customer, I saw 12 people waiting for training on this new type of technology. Gulp. Then I found out that my training had to be done in French! I managed to make it through and what I learned from this experience is that being thrown into the deep end does not always result in drowning.

Today, our Services Department has grown to a team of 13 people. We don’t wear as many hats. Instead, we specialize in business analysis and implementation. We have project plans and daily update meetings with our customers. All in all, we are much more organized and I get to sleep better at night.

Here are just a few of the things that I have learned about Customer Service along the way:

  1. Customers just want to know that you are there to help them. Keep them informed. Communicate with them regularly. Even if you don’t have any new information, just letting them know that makes a difference.
  2. Honesty plays an important part. So, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver. Let the customer know what they can expect and when.
  3. Try to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. They have pressures that you don’t know about. So, if they seem rude or abrupt sometimes, try to be calming and patient, and find out what is really going on. Their moods may have nothing to do with you or your product.
  4. Proper planning and project management can mean the difference between an underwhelmed customer and a satisfied one.
  5. Contrary to the well-known saying, the customer is not always right, but neither are you. Accepting that concept right from the beginning will save a lot of time and will help to create a good working relationship. Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. The customer may not know your product as well as you do, but they know their jobs. Listen to them and find a way to help them achieve their goals.

Putting the humans into Human Resources

In addition to working in Customer Service, as we started to grow, I also helped out with HR recruitment because I had some experience in that area from previous jobs. I am still involved in HR activities now, in a consulting role, so I know how much things have changed. Twenty years ago, our hiring process depended on word-of-mouth and asking people if they knew anyone who might know someone who wanted a job. We also occasionally put a job posting in the newspaper. You remember newspapers, don’t you? When we posted a job, I would be deluged with applications and CV’s…. on paper! Then, when we would hire someone, we’d basically keep our fingers crossed that we had made the right decision.

Now, we have a team of over 50 people, so the HR department has 3 permanent staff… 3½ if you count me. We have proven processes and procedures. We have weekly team-building activities. We monitor and genuinely care about the overall happiness of each employee. Our HR motto is: people are people. And it pays off. Our staff love the atmosphere and you can feel the camaraderie in the air when you walk into the office.

I have learned a lot by working with our team to evolve our HR practices at Jonar:  

  1. As an employee, do not just stay at a company for security or money. Make sure you actually like what you do. The yardstick is how you feel each Monday morning. Are you groaning or smiling?
  2. As an employer, hire people who will work well together. Experience and skills are handy, but a lot of stuff can be taught. Ask yourself if this is a person that you would look forward to working with every day. Because the person you hire will be working with the rest of your staff every day.
  3. Whether you are an employee or employer, honesty really is the best policy. Hiding mistakes as an employee, or hiding your frustration or disappointment as an employer or manager, solves nothing.
  4. An employee should never be afraid of telling their boss or supervisor that they disagree with something. Speak up. Offer your opinion. A good boss will listen and not just dismiss what you have to say. If you are afraid of your supervisor, you may not be in the right company. Or, you may have to look honestly at your own lack of confidence. Either way, working in a situation where you do not feel free to speak openly with your teammates or boss is not ideal.
  5. A boss or manager should not assume that they know better than the people they manage. You’d be surprised by the words of wisdom that are just waiting to be spoken. Encourage ideas from your staff. Listen with an open mind. Change is good!

Looking forward to more changes

So, now that I am reaching the end of my career, what does my future look like? Well, I will retire eventually. But even then, as long as I am still able to think clearly and can use my years of experience to help, I hope to continue to work, at least part-time, at Jonar. Jonar has been with me through some highs and some dark times and my crystal ball does not show life without Jonar anytime soon.

Linda Cumberbatch