Love Your Customer as Yourself with Bill Slappey
This episode of Bottom Line Faith features Bill Slappey, President and CEO of Slappey Communication.
“If you made me an atheist and took me back in time to when I started my business, I wouldn’t do anything different than what I’ve done because I’ve learned that God’s principles work. And here’s the principle that I’ve learned works: loving your customer as yourself works.”
Ray: Well hello everyone. This is Ray Hilbert, your co-host for Bottom Line Faith, and I am on the road in Birmingham, Alabama, and conducting an interview today with Bill Slappey, the CEO and president of Slappey Communications. And folks, for those of you, if this is your first time checking out Bottom Line Faith. This is the program where the analogy, the picture we like to use is where we lift the hood and tinker around in the engine of Christian leadership. And we like to hear from some of America’s top Christ followers who are in business and leadership, entertainment and those sorts of areas of expertise. And we want to learn how they lead. We want to learn how they live, how they think, how they solve problems, lessons learned, and so forth. That way it can be an encouragement to you as a Christ follower in business and in leadership. Bill, hello, and welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Bill: Glad to be here.
Ray: Well, you know, we’ve had a chance to chat for a few moments off-air and get to know each other a little bit. And this is an amazing story. And I just want to set the stage for; you started your company a number of years ago. And there’s so much talk today about the only way to success or the primary way to success in America is go to school, get your four-year degree, perhaps going to get your graduate degree, end up in all kinds of debt so maybe you can go up to corporate America and get a job, or maybe start a company. But there was a different path that God had in mind for you, and you started your company. But tell us a little bit of that story. How and why you started your company.
Bill: Yeah, everything really started for me was, gave my life to Christ. And I really thought that I was going to be a missionary somewhere. And I was down in Mexico, and the ironic thing, I was down there helping to build a college and my job was to install the light switch and electrical outlet in each of the dorm rooms. And as I was doing that, got up one morning and I was praying, I just said,” Lord, how do we reach these people in Mexico with the Gospel?”
Well, if you ever been to Mexico, there are people living beside the road in cardboard boxes. And so as I prayed, the Lord gave me a word; that had never really happened like this before. The word was communications. And I said hmm. So I got up the next morning, prayed the same prayer, got the same word again. And it was so strong that I went, “Lord, I don’t know really what this means. But I’m gonna get into the communications business.” So I was a chemical engineer at the time at Auburn University. Came back from that, changed my major to electrical engineering, and the whole idea was to be in the communications business. Now, since I thought I’d be a missionary, I thought surely I’d be in Africa, and I’d be in some radio, TV station, you know, an engineer helping get the Gospel out.
But within a year, the Lord had me in school and work at the same time, working for a company called Executone. And so I was installing phone systems, writing software, billing long-distance phone calls, all kinds of crazy things, having a lot of fun. And the short and sweet of it is that I found myself having more customers and more needs than I had time for school and study. So I remember going to my professor, Jim Johnson, telling him I had to audit one of the classes because I’d gotten behind. And he was like, “Whoa, what are you doing?” And when I told him, he obviously could see what was going on, and he got upset with me, and then I just was broken-hearted. And I went and laid before the Lord, and I went, “God, what’s going on?” And the Lord opened my eyes, lifted the veil and said, “This communication.”
So this is before the breakup of AT&T. In June of 1983, I remember doing a pros and cons list of why I should finish my college and why I should start the business. And when I got done, on the college side of the list was all vanity, you know, and what I needed to run this business really was all being written right then, and I had to go to seminars and get certified on products. So at June of ‘83, I dropped out of college, with about three and a half years of college, and changed my major a couple of times, so I was behind, but that’s where I started my business: in my mother’s basement.
So that was how it all started: with the goal of taking the Gospel to the business community. Because I was a missionary, so my goal was, “Hey, I want to be a part of taking the Gospel,” and the Lord just redirected that to go to the business world instead of you know, India or Africa.
Ray: I love that story and I love those kind of stories about God just speaking and, “Hey I’m just going to do this, right? I’m just gonna obey and start this company.” And so now you’re 34 years into this.
Ray: What do you think? Is it gonna work out? That is fantastic. Well, take just a moment and share with our audience just briefly what it is that your company does.
Bill: Okay. Slappey Communication started out, you know, servicing, installing new phone systems, but then that’s morphed more times than I can remember. So that’s morphed into IT and data infrastructure and firewalls and cloud solutions and hosting servers, you know, just a host of things, and we have several hundred miles of fiber, you know, so we just like, do it all when it comes to communications, of just meeting, you know, our customers’ needs. And that’s what’s really gotten us into so many things is customers have needs, and we said, “Okay, let’s figure out how to solve this problem for them.”
Ray: And we’re going to talk about business philosophy and best practices in just a few moments because you have some very clear ones that I think are powerful and will be a blessing and encouragement to our audience. And so the way that we talked a little bit off-air, and the kind of the way I perceived it is your company, Slappey Communications you’re headquartered here in Birmingham, Alabama, but you really have a national and in fact, international, global impact with what you do. Is that right?
Bill: Yeah, that has kind of been neat how the Lord has done that. We’ve gotten customers, you know, years ago, one of our customers, we did over 100 installs in every state in the country. And then as we actually, you know, gave phone systems to missionaries. And I remember we were doing one for Stephen Smith, down in Brazil, and just we just did all kinds of fun things with ministries. Wherever they went, we went, and we just figured it out. And now that we have, you know, the Internet and Voice-Over-IP, it’s really made that just, you know, the world is our marketplace.
Ray: Yeah, absolutely. But you really, at the core, have a heart for ministry in your business. You already shared that it really was your missions background and desire to be a missionary serving the Lord that was the foundation of the company. So talk to us a little bit about your viewpoint about how business and ministry. How does all that work? And particularly, how do you try to live that out?
Bill: Well for me, it’s, you know, my life Scripture is Proverbs 5 & 6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not lean upon your own understanding., In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and he’ll direct your steps.” So I tell people all the time, I say that I only really know one thing, and that all I know is acknowledge Christ in all that you do. And when I started my business, I just thought about how do I do that? And I remember, you know, the first thing I did was, well, how do I manage Christ?
Well maybe I should have a Bible study, so we started a Bible study. And I remember went to my employees, and I said, Hey, why don’t I give 15 minutes and y’all give 15. So everybody came at 7:45, and we went to 8:15, and, you know, obviously everybody started getting paid at 8. But, you know, that was kind of how we did that. We started, you know, having a Bible study every single day, you know, and we did that for probably close to 15, 20 years, you know, we got so big that we couldn’t really do it in that way.
So we went to, then multiple Bible studies during the week and so forth. But, you know, acknowledging Christ in the business with my employees, and later, how to acknowledge Christ to our customers and, you know, the products that we delivered to them and our proposals. And so we just figure out, how do we acknowledge Christ in every single thing, you know, that we do? We just try to figure that out. It’s impossible to come to business with me and not get the Gospel.
Ray: That’s neat to hear, and I know inside that there are some challenges, so let me, just for a moment, put myself in the seat right now of one of our listeners, who’s – perhaps you’re listening on your phone, or you’re driving along, listening in your car, and you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds great. I think it’d be fun or neat or interesting to have a Bible study or to do ministry things in the business.”
But what happens if I have to fire one of those employees? What happens if it just doesn’t work out? They’ll just really judge me; they’ll think I’m a terrible Christian. Did you ever have to face anything like that? You know, these some teammates of yours that you’re having Bible study with on Tuesday, that maybe they’re just not performing well, and maybe you had to terminate them on Thursday? I’m being hypothetical, of course. What’s that like?
Bill: Yeah, that’s always been hard. For me. It has really been hard. But, you know, I think that as I get outside of what I think and put myself in their shoes, I can never remember a time, believe it or not, that we both didn’t come to the same conclusion. You know, it’s been just amazing. Because when you pray with your employees, and you seek God, and you’re seeking, you know, win-win-win solutions, God does present those.
Now, I’m not saying that things haven’t been difficult and there haven’t been a lot of tears, you know, but it’s amazed me how God has, you know, replaced and moved people on, you know. I mean, I had a guy that I loved, and he had gotten this great job working for Blue Cross. And I went, “That’s a great job.” But I said, “Look, you can’t leave until you replace yourself,” you know, and I remember us just getting down on our knees and praying, and the next day, God brought somebody in that we interviewed and was this great fit. “I’m like going, “Lord, You are so in control,” you know? In the moment I was scared, but the Lord has been faithful. And it seemed like every time there’s been a big turnover, I’ve always said, “Let’s raise the bar. God bring in somebody that can help us all grow more,” and so that’s what’s happened.
Ray: Powerful. And along those lines, you know, I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens if not hundreds of Christian business owners and leaders over the years, and what we do in Truth At Work, in our roundtables, we talk about these challenges we have with underperforming employees, bottom line. And the one thing, Bill, that we see over and over again is we tend to want to hold on to them too long. We want to just give them another chance, give them another chance. And the other thing we don’t do is we don’t communicate as clearly as we should. What I’m hearing and what you’re talking about is it sounds to me like the communication lines have been opened, you’ve been transparent with folks, and then if there are no surprises along the line, it’s like God speaking to both of you at the same time. And I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but that’s what I’m hearing. Would you say that’s kind of been the way you’ve handled things as best you can?
Bill: I think the most important thing in business is to set expectations. You set your customers expectations; you set your employees expectations, I’ll give you an example. I had an employee that was consistently late to work, and this was agonizing, went on for probably a month. And I remember, you know, letting that person go, saying, “You know what, you know, I’ve done all I can do. You’ve got to be here at this time,” and we let that person go and hired another person. And within a month of having the new person, guess what? They were late to work as well. And I went, “God, what’s going on here?” And as I sought the Lord, the Lord said that I was the problem. And you know, and I went, “Okay God.”
So I had to redefine what it was that I needed the employees to do, and they need to understand, so they understood the urgency of being there at eight o’clock, you know. So it was a shift, so there’s where you’re letting your employees know at eight o’clock, we have service calls coming in. If you’re not there, then those phones are unanswered, you know, and therefore our customers don’t get to feel the confidence that we’re here for them and we can serve them.
So I think whenever employees aren’t performing, most of the time, it has to do with they don’t understand why they were asked to do what they’re doing, and we have to tell them. I’ll give you another quick story. I remember I was pushing to get a customer installed, and it was it was a Hillcrest Hospital, it was a big installation, probably 15 to 20 years ago, I can’t remember when. But I remember, as I was pushing on, I could see all the employees just chill out. “Why do we have to get this done?” And I somehow couldn’t articulate the importance of that businesses need to generate profits.
Finally, I took one of my employees, you know, John Arnold, and I brought him into the conference room, and I said, “John, let me spell it out to you July 31st is our year-end. If we cut Hillcrest, we’ll have the profits to make a 401k contribution. If we don’t, we won’t.” And he said, “Bill, I got this.” He took me out. They worked all weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and it was a great cut. The customer’s still a customer today, but I had to tell him why that was so important and how that it pertained. For me to just say, “Hey, we want a good year and profitable” may not necessarily be the same motivation as, “Hey, I want to make contributions for 401K, and I’m going to need these profits to do that with.”
Ray: Love that, and as I’m listening to that story, in tying in the biblical principles of business leadership, I’m reminded when Jesus talked to his disciples, and He said, “Look, I call you friends. I’m letting you in on the business; I’m letting you in on the inside track, right? It’s not a secret what we’re about here.”, And so I think that’s a great leadership principle there for you as business owners and leaders, that to share the – not only the what, but the why. Why does something need to get done? And that’s what Bill’s talking to us about here as far as setting expectations. Folks, this is Ray Hilbert, your co-host at Bottom Line Faith, and we are talking with Bill Slappey, the CEO and president of Slappey Communications in Birmingham, Alabama. Bill, by the way, how can we find you on the web?
Ray: Let’s kind of transition a little bit. I want to talk about; you said something a couple moments ago about some best practices and a winning expectation for your customers. But it’s beyond just a win for your customers, right? Tell me more about some of the best practices that you have implemented in leading your company.
Bill: Okay, I’ve probably got about three or four best practices. First of all, I want to go back to this battle that we fight, okay. And the battle that we’re fighting is that we want to give the best value to our customers but remain profitable. And we also want to be merciful, but we also want to be truthful. So there’s this battle. And it looks like a tightrope. If you can just imagine you’re walking along the tightrope, and you’re putting on one arm, you know, we’re going to do it right, and the other arm is that we’re going to do it on time. And you can see that we’re going to struggle, and if we do it on time, we’re probably going to be profitable, and if we go over time, we’re probably not gonna be.
So that’s a struggle. Well, when I realized that my employees, that different sides, some employees that that are all about the customer, and other employees are all about the profit. And when I put this big banner on my wall, and it shows this tightrope, and it shows this balance between, you know, value and customers and then profitability, and at the top of it, it says, this is a complex problem that we have in business, all the “us and them.” Sales goes and sells something, “Why did you go do that? it’s wrong.” And ultimately speaking, the end result is the cross is the solution to this complex problem. We need each other, and we need to find that balance.
So that’s the most important thing I think that I do is I bring my employees into the conference room on a fairly regular basis. When we have a conflict and go, let’s recognize where it is, and let’s embrace that the struggle is good. It’s good that we struggle about maximum value for our customers, maximum value for employees. It’s also good that we struggle with profitability. We have to exist. So that’s one thing for sure. The other principle you know, that I love to talk about is you have to define who your customer is. And here’s what a customer is for Slappey Communications, is someone who has a problem that they need to solve that they cannot easily solve. Otherwise, we’re just a commodity; that’s pretty clear. Okay. So we’re looking for customers that have problems. So here’s what happens is at the end of the day, it has to be a win for the customer, win for Slappey Communications, win for the employees. If it’s not win-win-win for your employees, for the customer, for the company, then they’re not a customer. When a customer is asking you to do something for less than what you can afford to deliver to them, they’re not a customer, you know. So there’s so much release in that when you go, Oh, you know, you draw the line in the sand, here’s our profitability, you know, if you want me to do it for less, then you’re not a customer.
And so freeing my employees up and letting them know, it kind of goes back to the expectations. You have to be good enough at business where you know where your profitability, you know where your gross profit percentages are, you know how many hours a day you need to build those kinds of things. And if you don’t do those things, you’re not going to be profitable. So there’s the win-win-win-win that you have to find. And it amazes me the number of customers when I actually say, “Here’s where I’m profitable. Here’s where I’m not. I’m not sure whether we can do business or not.” It amazes me how many times the customer moves the line, they move me into profitability. We quit fighting about it, you know, I have to be profitable. And if I can’t be that, maybe you’re not a good customer for me. Maybe we don’t have a match. It’s amazing how you quit fighting when you identify those. But you’ve got to be a good businessman to know what that number is.
You know, the other thing, as far as best practices, and I told the man’s group I was talking to this morning, you know, I said, if you made me an atheist, took me back in time when I started my business, I wouldn’t do anything different than what I’ve done. Because I’ve learned that God’s principles work. And here’s the principle that I’ve learned works. Loving your customer as yourself works. I mean, it just does. It just does all day long. And I think it’s like going the extra mile. And I’ve got a story for this. It’s so cool. You know, it always feels like it’s the extra mile. It’s just the way the Gospel works. You don’t share the Gospel the first mile. You just don’t. You know, customers have to see you go the extra mile.
So I remember I had a customer called Saunders Trucking, and I’m, you know, I get this phone call that they’re having this problem and so forth, and so I go down there. And it’s midnight, by the way, and this is back years ago, you know, when I was pretty much starting the business. And as I remember going up there, and I’m just beating my head up against the wall trying to solve this problem. And I just prayed, “Lord, you dragged me out of bed at midnight to come down here to solve this problem, and I can’t solve it.” And I’m just praying and saying, “Lord, show me what to do.” And I look across the room, and this guy, his name was David, was sitting in driver central, and I said, “I don’t even know what we’ll do. Fine.” And so I just let go of my problem, I went over there, and start talking to David. It wasn’t long before we were talking about marriage and kids and life and difficulties in life. And an hour later, he prayed to receive Christ.
And I remember at that point, I was like, “Okay, God, sometimes you’re not causing me always to solve the problem that I can physically see in front of me. You’ve allowed a problem, got me out of bed, so I can do your work.” You know, I can’t remember what happened after that point. Because that was the most important thing, you know, that God had gotten me out of bed and had moved me that place. And so was that point. I just said, “Okay, Lord, you’re in control. You have my schedule; I’ll do it your way. And when there’s conflict or problems, I’m going to look for the opportunity to share Christ.”
Ray: I love that. And it just means that God’s at work and his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. As you were talking about going that extra mile, I’m reminded, we learned from the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, their entire business model is based out of Matthew chapter 5, and they call it moving from transaction to relationship. And what they did, Bill, was their average ticket price is about $6.50 in the restaurant business. And so they went out, and they studied other restaurants whose average ticket price is about $25. And they came back and said, “What can we do to provide a $25 experience at a $6.50 cent price point while going the extra mile?”
So that’s why, when you go into a Chick-Fil-A, you see flowers on the table. And when it’s raining, they’re coming out to get that mom who’s escorting her kids inside the rainstorm. They’re putting an umbrella over their head and walking them in. And that’s why they just go that extra mile. And that’s really what you’re talking about. And that’s a deeply rooted biblical principle. So you said that even if you had been an atheist all these years, these biblical principles work, don’t they, regardless of whether or not we understand the source of them. Would you agree with that?
Bill: Yes. Amen.
Ray: Believe it or not, we’re getting near the end here. Man, this 30 minutes goes so quickly. I wish I had much more time with you today. Oh, here’s a question for you. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business? And what did God teach you in that? I may have just tricked you with that one.
Bill: Well, you know, I would, you know, I’d have to say, pride is at the root of the biggest mistakes. I’ve tried to be smart enough and strong enough, and so I’m learning to lay that down, you know, before the Lord, has been, you know, just continuing to say I’m wrong. I mean, I remember one time in my company where that, you know, I had gotten, you know, I was behind the scenes, using words like “stupid customer” and “idiot,” you know, and I was calling out of frustration.
And the Lord just, I noticed that sort of started to permeate through the company. So I remember pulling all the employees together, 50 employees. I said, “Okay, I’m wrong. I’m sorry, we will not do this anymore. We will never call a vendor or a customer an idiot or stupid; we’re taking those words out of our language.” And I said, “It starts with me.” And I said, “So I confess that to the whole company. I’m gonna hold you accountable. You hold me accountable, but we’re gonna say we have opportunities, not problems.” Okay. So that was probably really humbling for me to just stand up there because I was using bad language to describe vendors and customers that wasn’t edifying.
Ray: And as the Word says, it was coming out of the depth of your heart, right? and a man’s words reflect what’s the depth of his heart. And so that’s a great lesson learned, and I’m sure that somebody listening to this program right now needed to hear that. I know it’s a good reminder for me as well. Well, Bill, we are at the tail end, of my goodness, I just have so many more questions. I’m encouraged and inspired by our conversation today. But we have a little tradition here at Bottom Line Faith. And we have a question that I call the “4:23 question.” You were mentioning earlier your life verse is out of Proverbs, so right after your life verse in Proverbs 3 is this verse in Proverbs 4:23 that Solomon writes this, he says that “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it determines the course of your life.” What comes out of your heart is what needs to be guarded.
And I always take a little bit of time to explain, because we have some first-time listeners on every interview. And so I always take a little bit of time to explain that Solomon is described as the richest, wisest man to ever have lived through biblical times. And he gave us all these incredible pearls of wisdom found in the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and so forth. There are some biblical scholars that believe these may have been amongst Solomon’s last words that he penned, almost his deathbed commentary. That maybe he might have gathered his family, his friends and his loved ones, and he’s gathered them around, and he’s saying something like “I’ve given you all this wisdom; I’ve given you all these principles to live by. Now above all else, I know that’s good stuff. But above all else, guard your heart.” So Bill, let’s just turn the clock forward. We don’t know when that day will come for any of us. But let’s say it’s at the end of your time this side of eternity, and you have an opportunity to gather your family, your friends, your loved ones – the people who are most precious to you – and you get a chance to give your above all else advice. So, Bill, above all else…
Bill: Well, this is a verse that I have memorized, okay, and I love that. But to me, above all else would be acknowledge Christ in all that you do. For me, acknowledging Christ protects me from me, acknowledging Christ directs me, as I acknowledge Christ I love on people and I do things that I wouldn’t normally do. So as I ponder that question, “how do I acknowledge Christ,” because when I made this my life verse, I remember the last part was “and he will direct your steps.” I say, “Well I have no idea where I’m going, what I’m doing. If God will direct my steps and all I have to do is acknowledge him, done. Deal.” I made a deal with God; I will acknowledge you and all that I do and let him worry about where I go.
Ray: So Bill’s advice to us is above all else, acknowledge Christ in all we do. Well, folks, this has been another incredible edition of the Bottom Line Faith program. I am your co-host, Ray Hilbert. Of course, you can learn more about Bottom Line Faith and listen to our other interviews at bottomlinefaith.org. Also, if you’re a Christ follower in business and you’re interested in tools and resources and encouragement about what that can look like to be a Christ follower in your company, and perhaps you may even have interest in learning more about our Truth At Work roundtable programs, check out our website at truthatwork.org. So, Bill, as we wind up, any closing words that you’d like to share with our audience? This has been incredibly fun today.
Bill: Have fun, just serve the Lord with fun and find the fun in everything that you do. Because to me, sharing Christ, acknowledging Christ, helping people in their businesses, helping families, is a lot of fun. And so that’s what I would say. Look for the fun in what God is doing in and through you.