That’s right, I said humility matters in business

In a recent blog (on the BBC’s insistence of mischaracterising entrepreneurs) I claimed humility as a key trait for success in business – as opposed to the arrogance on show with TV parodies such as The Apprentice. Of course, it’s one of those statements you make and secretly doubt: surely a good dollop of hubris helps, doesn’t it? Believe in yourself, and others follow, don’t they?

Well, yes: self-belief matters. But two recent events have reinforced my view that arrogance – perhaps revealed as a high-minded disregard for your customers – is a disaster.

The first involves a café serving excellent coffee and with a great layout including nooks and crannies good for two-man meetings. It was my favourite for one-to-one staff catch-ups away from our not-so-soundproof meeting room. So much so that I put up with the fact they didn’t bring orders to the table – sometimes leaving it on the counter until, after 10 minutes or so, you wondered where it was, only to find two rapidly-cooling lattes and a disinterested barista.

Yet that wasn’t its worst fault. It was the music, which was played at top volume no matter what the hour. Yes, I like some uplifting music. And, yes, I realize not everyone is there to have a meeting, meaning that lots and lots of people will enjoy the hubbub music generates as they sip their coffees and chat.

One day, however, I thought it simply too loud, not helped by the thrashy choice of music (perhaps it was the stoned-looking barista’s day to choose – the one with the tattoos on his neck and ten-penny-size holes in his earlobes). I complained to the manageress (or at least the oldest-looking person there). In fact, I didn’t complain – I put on my best “winning smile” and chummy – we’re all in this together – voice and egg-shell tread my plea to turn the volume down a smite.

She smiled back, though the smile went no further than her mouth.

“No,” she said with frozen eyes.

I waited for a reason – just something that perhaps tried to explain that, while understanding my needs, there was a good explanation for the choice and volume of music.

Nothing.

Fair to say that we never went there again.

In fact, there was potentially a good explanation. The café was bang next door to a newly-opened university campus and the pavements outside teemed with students. Yet few of the students went inside because the coffee was clearly priced for the other half of the area’s population: City workers in suits, having meetings (or otherwise needing to concentrate).

Yet the City workers were packing one of the other 10-or-more cafes dotted within yards of this place, rendering this corner café, with fantastic foot-fall and great tables, near-empty despite its size and comfort.

Of course, my run-in had been with the manageress, so this was perhaps no more than what economists call “agency risk” in which managers act in ways that suit them, while owners act in ways that suit the customers.

Aware of this, I sought the owner. The website contained no email, so I rang the number – several times before being picked up. The owner-sounding person said the owner wasn’t around but, after I asked, gave me an email. Partly out of anger, but partly because the operations of this café were endangering its viability (something some friendly business-owner to business-owner advice could perhaps correct) I sent the email. No reply.

I mentioned two events. The second involves our office, which we moved into in December with – for the first time – our own (i.e. unshared) kitchen. I’d been to IKEA to stock-up on kitchenware, including buying two-or-three tea-towels. Yet I’m a bloke. So I didn’t notice that they were getting a little grubby – especially after other blokes kept using them to mop up floor spillages in that very male foot-on-towel style.

A few weeks in, I began to worry about the state of the tea-towels – perhaps while idly waiting for the kettle to boil – though did nothing about it. But then a strange thing happened. They disappeared – reappearing clean and laundered. More than this, there were now half-a-dozen of them, with five folded in a draw, fluffed up and ironed, while one was hung neatly from the drawer handle.

Again, being a bloke, it took a while for me to notice this change. Finally, it got through and I asked around: nope, no one in the office claimed responsibility for the tea-towel laundering. Yet it carried on – week after week – to the point we began referring to the tea-towel fairy, while others joking about an office elf.

The mystery solved itself while I was working late last week. The cleaner appeared around 8pm: a small cockney – the sort you only find in Essex and Kent these days. We’d taken him on in the old building, but I so loved his keen-to-please attitude we took him with us, though it was now a much bigger job involving stairs and kitchens and loos and two floors of desks.

Extraordinarily polite and deferential, we chatted for 10 minutes about business, which was going so well he was now employing his wife and was thinking of employing someone else, though only if he could find the “right person” (this was for office cleaning, remember). After a while his wife appeared – having been working on the lower floor. In her bag, were some dirty tea-towels, ready to be taken home, washed, ironed and brought back to our kitchen drawer. Our tea-towel fairy had been uncovered.

Eventually – and quite naturally – we got talking about our contract. It was quite clear he was undercharging and, again super-deferentially, he managed to renegotiate a better rate, though absolutely one I was happy to pay.

Knowing the office cleaning was in good hands, I left – marvelling at he and his wife’s wondrous industry, generosity of spirit and cheery demeanour: phrases like “salt-of-the-earth” and “unsung heroes” bouncing around my mind. In fact, they generated a near emotional response in me, so impressed was I with this example of humble entrepreneurship.

The café, meanwhile, shut its doors about a month ago. It’s been replaced by a student-priced but super-trendy wood-fired pizza joint – run by an owner who’s always onsite, happy and desperate to please. Most lunchtimes, the queue – of both students and City workers – goes out the door.