The simple rule that turned an out-of-work mom into a successful entrepreneur.
Posted in , Oct 29, 2008
My first day of work at Security Bank, I looked at the other tellers, sleek and confident in their suits and heels. In a smock-like blouse inherited from my mother-in-law and slacks I'd borrowed from a friend, I felt completely out of place.
I was afraid my supervisor would tell me they'd changed their minds about hiring me. All I had was a GED. What made me think I could do this job?
I'd dropped out of high school to get married, then my husband left me high and dry with two kids. I went on welfare for a time, then worked as a waitress and even sold Tupperware.
Happily, I was now remarried to a good man with a steady job, but we still needed a second income to make ends meet.
At the bank I listened carefully to my supervisor as she explained how to receive a deposit slip, stamp it and return one copy to the customer. I concentrated on what a teller had to do when balancing her drawer at the end of the day. My mind was teeming with details, each one a chance to mess up.
Then came the advice that I clung to. "Treat everybody right," my supervisor said. "Just because a man comes in wearing bib overalls and hands you a roll of dirty one-dollar bills in a rubber band doesn't mean he's not a somebody."
Treat everybody right? I'd been in too many situations—waiting hours to be interviewed for a low-paying job or paying for groceries with food stamps—when people had acted as though I wasn't even there.
It was one of the worst feelings, being treated like I didn't count for anything. Being able to treat people right was one thing I felt confident I could do.
So my work began. "Good morning," I'd say brightly to the people who came to my window. I made a point of remembering their names. I'd say, "Hello, Mr. Culpepper ... Mrs. Mulligan ... Ms. Stewart. How are you today?"
People began to line up for me. The elderly woman who needed me to fill in her deposit slip, the man who always sang "Sally in Our Alley" when he saw me, the gent with the accent who taught me how to say "Have a good day" in his native Polish.
"What are you trying to do?" asked my friend and fellow teller, Rebecca. "Campaign for teller of the month?"
"Just trying to make people feel good about themselves," I replied. It also made me feel good about myself. Although my drawer didn't always balance right on the first try and I had to triple-check my numbers on a savings-bond purchase, my work was drawing praise.
One morning my supervisor came to me with a young woman in the bank's management training program. "Sally, meet Leslie," she said. "I want you to train her."
For what? I wondered.
"Teach Leslie how to be a teller," my supervisor said. "She'll need the experience." Surprised and a bit flattered, I began to show Leslie how to perform the numerous tasks that were part of a teller's job. Most of all I stressed how important it was to give everyone the personal touch.
"I can tell," Leslie said. "You treat everybody like they're special."
"Yes, and speak Polish to them too," Rebecca joked. "Some old guy just might sing 'Sally in Our Alley' to you."
The three of us got along great, Rebecca, Leslie and I. We'd eat lunch and swap stories from our customers. When Leslie moved to the management office, she always called me when she needed to know what was happening out on the front lines of the bank.
Then they introduced computers into our department. "This way there won't be any more errors when you close out your drawers at the end of the day," our manager said. I blushed, sure he was thinking of me.
Nervously, I inspected the new contraption. On the keyboard were keys and symbols I'd never seen before. F keys, a Delete key, Alt, Ctrl and Insert. I was afraid that if I touched the wrong one, I'd erase everything.
The bank brought in a team of trainers. I learned that all those keys did things that could help me in my job. To my surprise I soon was showing the other employees at Security Bank where the cursor went when you hit Ctrl-End and just how fast and easy it was to pull up a record for a customer.
"You're good at this," one of the trainers said to me. "You seem to understand the computer intuitively." She asked me out to lunch and made me an offer: "You could become a trainer yourself. We could go into business together."
I hated to leave the security of the bank, but the idea was exciting and my husband, Tom, encouraged me to go for it. So I said good-bye to Rebecca and called Leslie to wish her well. My partner and I started a company called Computer Confidence, Inc.
Just a few years earlier I was a high school dropout and single mother on welfare. Now I had my own company! And we got a great client right off the bat—Ford Motor Company.
Ford had just converted to a new computer program called Worldwide Engineering Release System (WERS). It really frustrated some of their employees. With one week to learn the system, I felt overwhelmed myself.
I crammed day and night, learning dozens of automotive terms like "torque" and "homologation" and "bill of material."
My first day of teaching I gazed at an intimidating roomful of engineers in white shirts with pocket protectors and took a deep breath. "Okay," I said, "look down at your keyboards and use the space bar to move the cursor."
Some guys started tapping away. But others just stared down. Then it dawned on me—there was nothing marked "space bar" on the keyboard. This was all brand-new to them, and they were worried about losing their jobs because of it.
We were all in the same boat, I realized. I was trying to make a living, and these guys with more degrees than I had T-shirts were just trying to make a living too. We were all trying to get by with the skills God gave us.
I said a quick prayer. Lord, you've helped me so much. Now please help me help these guys.
"Relax," I told them. "It might seem confusing at first, but you'll get it. If somebody like me can get it, you can." For the first time I started to think that being a high school dropout could be an advantage.
I could sympathize because I knew what it was like to feel frustrated and hopeless at something. And I could show people that with the right attitude anyone could succeed.
Ford hired our company to go around the world training their international staff. We were expected to get Ford employees up to speed on the WERS system, but that was only the half of it. The most important part of our job was to get them to feel comfortable and confident with computers.
It was sort of like being at the bank again. Humoring people, getting to know them, always adding the personal touch. Treating them like they were special.
I found gimmicks to use. When a nervous fellow kept hitting the Escape button, shutting down his computer, I got a soda bottle top. "You get a cap, pal," I said, and laughingly put it over the Escape button so he couldn't punch it.
One day for the fun of it I went to the beauty salon and had my fingernails painted with flowers. That afternoon I worked with an engineer who was becoming increasingly impatient with his machine.
To help him out, I tapped his computer screen with one of my flowered nails. He burst out laughing. "What on earth is that?"
"Nail art. Don't you love it? Let me show you how I can type." I clicked away on the keyboard without my fingertips ever touching the keys. It was just kooky enough to make him loosen up.
After that, I decided my nails were among my most effective teaching tools. I had them done up differently for every place we went: exotic birds for Brazil, flowers in Korea, palm trees in California.
In five years Computer Confidence grew from just the two of us to eight employees. Then my partner decided she wanted to sell her share of the company. I could buy her out, but she named a six-figure price that I wouldn't be able to come up with.
All my husband and I owned was our house, and we couldn't get more than $50,000 if we sold it. God, I prayed, I've helped build this company. Please help me keep it.
With all the important papers from our company in the back seat of my car, I drove to Nails by Lenore for my usual appointment. I was sitting at the salon, wondering what kind of pictures I would put on my nails now, when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "Sal? Sally Lyle, is that you?"
I turned around. There was my old friend Rebecca from the bank! I stood up and gave her a hug.
"Still at Security?" I asked.
"Yes. But Security has merged. We're First of America now. And I'm not a teller anymore. I work as a district manager. What about you? Still making people computer confident?"
"Yes." I hesitated. Would it be bad business to tell her what an impossible situation I was in? Shouldn't I act confident about this too? Then I thought again. Rebecca, I knew, was the Lord's answer to my prayer.
"Things are tough right now," I admitted. "My partner wants me to buy her out, and I just don't know how I can do it."
"Finish your nails and come with me," Rebecca said. "I'm meeting some co-workers for dinner." At the cafe Rebecca introduced me, forthright as always: "This is Sally Lyle, she needs a loan and she should get it. Trust me. She's a great computer trainer."
Right there I made an appointment to see a loan officer. The next day, I sat in the bank, showing him all the paperwork for the company, including our contract with Ford.
I heard another familiar voice and looked up to see Leslie, whom I'd taught all I knew about being a teller. Turned out she was the loan officer's supervisor!
"Sally's the best teacher I ever had," she said. "Taught me how to treat customers right. So we need to treat her the same way."
The application sailed through. Within weeks I had the loan and Computer Confidence was all mine. Six years later, we had 100 employees working around the world.
I look at my computer screen in amazement myself. Sometimes even I wonder how I went from being a welfare mom to a business executive. Then I think about what I learned my first day as a teller.
It's advice that predates the computer by millennia, going back to the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you treat people right, they'll treat you right back. That is something you can bank on.
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